There are quirky, implausible, ridiculous musicals. And then there’s “Urinetown,” the final show in Skylight Music Theatre’s 2017/2018 season. This meta-satire that tweaks agit-prop political plays, our current president, global warming, mega corporations, politicians on the take, and more than a dozen other well-loved musicals, is self-conscious and melodramatic in the best way. It is also a laugh riot.
As the audience learns in the song “Too Much Exposition,” Urinetown has suffered a catastrophic water shortage, due to a disregard for the environment. This is a perfect opportunity for the dastardly corporation UGC (an acronym for “Urine Good Company”) to profit by controlling the water and charging all citizens to use the facilities. As the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and relieving yourself behind a tree becomes a capital offence, something’s got to give. The bathroom-less 98 percent eventually wage an uprising, led by star crossed lovers — the destitute Bobby Strong and daughter of UGC tycoon, Hope Cladwell. A lot of hilarious singing and dancing ensues.
The over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek tone is set with the opening lines from our narrator; jack booted, leather trench-coat clad Officer Lockstock (a deliciously evil Rick Pendzich). He lays out the premise for the show with Little Sally (Kaylee Annable), a post-apocalyptic Little Orphan Annie. Adorable Annable frequently brings up confusing plot points and comments on the terrible title, a trope used for consistent comedic effect. Pendzich is the audience’s reliable guide, despite his super-villain laughter and delight in harassing the lower classes. He consistently comments on the action and lets us know how long intermission will be, when he isn’t reveling in being bad.
As the musical’s young hero Bobby Strong, Lucas Pastrana is exceptional. An idealist facing a crisis of conscience, he urges the underclass to rise up against the evil corporation and demand free toilets for all! Singing defiantly, he is Jean Valjean, Tony, Alexander Hamilton, and a musical Norma Rae. He doubles down against the establishment with ferocity only found in young people whose hearts are full of love, and whose righteousness makes them believe they are indestructible.
Pastrana has it all: boyish, all-American looks, passion, and a gorgeous tenor voice that soars through both love songs and calls to arms. His number “Run, Freedom, Run!” — a gospel song that he also directs—is especially delightful. I would happily see him as the young lead in any musical at all.
A spunky Rachael Zientek is his inspirational new love; Hope. Although many characters comment on her beautiful looks, she’s much more than a pretty face. The fierce brunette is a strong and idealistic ingénue who eventually turns against her tycoon father. Underneath her power suit, Zientek’s light soprano is graceful and charming, particularly in her duet with Pastrana, “Follow Your Heart.”
Other stand-outs in the extremely strong cast are Amber Smith, as the no-nonsense, hard as nails Penelope Pennywise, who oversees Public Amenity #9; and Stephen Koehler as the miserly CEO of UGC, Cladwell B. Caldwell. Smith channels the Wicked Witch of the West in her sharp, nasal delivery at the top of the show, but softens up physically and vocally when her character’s heart of gold is eventually revealed. Meanwhile Koehler revels in his role as a nefarious Mr. Moneybags, enjoying the power he holds over everyone as much as the obscene amount of cash he’s accrued. His inventive puppetry during the cautionary song, “Don’t Be the Bunny,” was worth the price of admission.
An already strange and delightful piece, director Ray Jivoff and choreographer Ryan Cappleman have kicked the entire production up a few notches, adding in some contemporary political jokes and going full tilt on dance numbers that imitate Broadway’s favorite shows, including “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Les Miserables,” “West Side Story,” “Guys and Dolls,” and a hilarious tip of the hat to “The Music Man” that will truly tickle die-hard fans. There are nods to 19 classic shows in all, so stay alert. Or play along with the clever bingo game that the Skylight staff has created.
Adding to the show’s surrealism, scenic designer Brandon Kirkham has created an exaggerated, rusty and wretched urban landscape with a decrepit public restroom at the center that evokes an almost visceral response. The color palette for the underlings of oranges, greens, and pinks reinforces the comic book-esque landscape. These colors are also the foundation of Kärin Simonson Kopischke’s costumes for the downtrodden, many of which transform the actors into Dr. Seuss characters down on their luck. Silly silver wigs, gray suits, and urine-yellow ties and accessories give the corporate wonks a similar cartoony feel, to great effect.
“Urinetown” is crass, irreverent and very funny. But if seeing someone take a leak onstage, or watching an entire cast grab their crotches in full bladder agony is not your thing, this is not the right show for you. Same goes for hearing the words “pee” and “urine,” ad nauseum. (They are repeated approximately 35,000 times over the course of the show, in both songs and dialogue.)
If, on the other hand, you don’t mind an excess of toilet humor with a side of political commentary, wrapped in a love letter to musical theater, then you’re in luck. As one says to a potty training toddler, “Run, don’t walk.”
What: “Urinetown” presented by Skylight Music Theatre
When: through June 10
Where: The Cabot Theatre in the Broadway Theatre Center
Who: Directed by Ray Jivoff, featuring a ridiculously talented cast
How much? $30 - $73.50
More info: skylightmusictheatre.org
Why go? This musical with the ridiculous premise and the terrible title may make you pee your pants with laughter.
An edited version of this review will appear at OnMilwaukee.com