Maggie Walker’s ‘Urinetown’ shows great promise from local young talent
Ordinarily I wouldn’t review a high school production. I’ve been in them and seen enough of them to know that once you have a critical eye, expectations there are best kept low. But, I’ve become interested in Maggie Walker’s program because they traditionally recruit the best of Richmond’s theatre talent to create their shows. Carol Piersol, Artistic Director/Co-Founder previously of THE FIREHOUSE THEATRE and now the 5TH WALL THEATRE COMPANY is the Producer of the program and she brings in top notch talent to craft these shows.
Sure enough, Urinetown is no exception. With Matt Polson directing and Emily Poff doing double duty as Choreographer and Conductor of the orchestra, the production sparkled.
Urinetown is a clever tongue in cheek musical about the evil “Urine Good Hands” Corporation, which regulates the severe water shortage in their town by denying the populace indoor plumbing and by charging outrageous sums to use public “Amenities.” Public Urination is made a capital offense. The plot concerns a public rebellion of the poor and downtrodden of this town against these practices and weaves an amusing love story between the leader of the revolt and the CEO’s daughter. We never know the real name of the town but learn that “Urinetown” is the code word for the place where the “criminals” end up after being pushed off a tall building to their death. We can only assume that’s where all the “amenity” by-products are dumped. Yuck!
For once Wikipedia gets it right when it summarizes that “Urinetown” “… satirizes the legal system, capitalism, social irresponsibility, populism, bureaucracy, corporate mismanagement, and municipal politics. The show also parodies musicals such as “The Threepenny Opera”, “The Cradle Will Rock” and “Les Misérables”, as well as the Broadway musical form itself.”
I could, but don’t have to say it better.
The beauty of productions at Maggie Walker is that it is entirely student driven. The students design and build the sets, costumes and hang the lights (with professional supervision). Maggie Walker is a school that students apply to get in to and they are, as a result, are often more highly motivated to self-create as opposed to other more well-funded “elite” schools which have better facilities, perhaps, but nowhere near the commitment from the kids and their parents.
This production is far from perfect. High School age actors can sometimes lack subtlety. They are so ramped up with the energy of a live production that they have a hard time modulating the volume of their already miked voices creating some slurry speech and singing. The choreographed ensemble numbers also tend to be a bit messy, accommodating all levels of dance talent. The lighting design produced some very well done specials but sometimes failed to accommodate all parts of the very large stage. These are but trivial annoyances of a grumpy critical eye. The production as a whole is bolstered by the beautiful, functional set, the energetic choreography and the amazing talent of the featured players.
When I was in High School no one was this good.
The lead roles of “Bobby Strong” and “Hope Caldwell” are some of the best roles in the Broadway canon. Evan Heiter and Brenda Hayes play the lovers. They both have singing voices like angels and are maturely subtle in their acting. Their scenes together and separately are electric. You can’t teach that, a director can only shepherd it to fruition.
Matching them on the other end of the spectrum was the fascinating cheesiness and spot on delivery of the very talented James Caven as the CEO of “Urine Good Hands” Corporation. If any of the older folks remember the 1960’s New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, a man whose personality was as big and outrageous as all of New York, you will recognize the Harlem strut and oozing smarmy charm that Mr. Caven seems to channel, despite what I am sure is no historical frame of reference. He just nails it. Wavy hair and funky moves, he is a joy to watch.
There were many other fine performances but two deserve special mention: Lucina Hawkins as Penelope Pennywise and John Libby in dual roles. Both elevated their roles beyond the written word.
Director Matt Polson used an incredibly large, multi-leveled and intricately beautiful set to its best advantage. Staircases and two story ladders became acting and singing platforms. Two dozen actors, constantly on stage moved through the space with ease and purpose. Hard to tell how much of the cleverness on stage was his invention or the actors, but as captain of the ship he takes the plunge or garners the accolades. All proper attributions then to him for steering this fine ship.
The love of theatre usually starts in school. How lucky the Maggie Walker theatre students are then to have such fine professional mentors. Out of such raw talent stars are made.
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