Chicago Theatre Review
The Privilege to Pee
Urinetown – Boho Theatre
Unbelievably, it’s been sixteen years since this cleverly satirical, hysterically funny and somewhat controversial musical comedy first opened on Broadway. Its biting humor pokes fun at politics, the absurdity of the law, the top dogs who govern, corporate mismanagement and bullying. It even parodies the musical theatre genre, itself.
This musical first came into prominence at the 2001 New York International Fringe Festival. It proved popular enough to spur an Off Broadway production, followed by its Broadway debut later that same year. The show became a critical and popular favorite, particularly because of its unconventional storyline, unique setting and bizarre characters. It also lampooned so many of our national institutions. Audiences and analysts always drool over a well-constructed parody, and this musical zings everyone and everything about this country.
While traveling in Europe, Greg Kotis first encountered what he considered the absurdity of pay toilets. That sparked the idea for a story and he began scribbling down his ideas for a play. Joining up with Mark Hollman, who composed the score, with lyrics by both Hollman and Kotis, this unusual musical, with its repulsive title, eventually began to take shape. At first, no one was interested in producing a musical about paying to pee; eventually Chicago’s experimental company, the Neo-Futurists, found the premise intriguing enough to option a production. When those plans fell through, someone from the New York Fringe Festival invited Kotis and Hollman to bring their work to the Big Apple. This singular theatrical piece went on to surprise many theatergoers by being nominated for ten Tony Awards in 2002, winning for both Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score. It also took the Theatre World Award that year.
The story is set in a dystopian world in which water is so scarce that people are no longer allowed to have bathrooms in their own homes. Bathing has been abolished and people are only allowed to relieve themselves in public, government sanctioned toilets. The poverty-stricken populace now must pay for the privilege to pee, but only in certain public rest stops. They’ve been erected across the country by a ruthless mega corporation called Urine Good Company. The tyrannical CEO of this business, Caldwell B. Cladwell, has established strict laws forbidding anyone to relieve himself except in these government-owned facilities. If caught urinating anywhere but in a pay urinal, the lawbreaker will be arrested and hauled off to the dreaded land of Urinetown, never to be seen again.
Enter our hero, Bobby Strong. He works as a custodian at Public Amenity #9, the filthiest potty in town. His supervisor is the strict, merciless Penelope Pennywise, another pawn in Cladwell’s corrupt organization. Also lurking in the shadows are the smarmy Officer Lockstock and his bootlicker, Officer Barrel, both of whom delight in enforcing Cladwell’s edicts and dragging paupers, like Old Man Strong, off to oblivion.
Then, a breath of beauty and fresh air arrives in the form of Hope Cladwell, the CEO’s pretty, optimistic daughter. She’s recently completed her schooling and has been hired as the new copy girl at her father’s corporation. She becomes attracted to handsome, dashing Bobby Strong, but when Cladwell institutes new, exorbitantly high fee hikes, almost no one can afford to pee. Bobby, already upset that his own father has been carted away to the mysterious Urinetown, for peeing in an alleyway, becomes incensed at how unfair their lives have become under Cladwell’s administration (sound familiar?) He decides to lead a rebellion, which would allow everyone the right to pee-for-free. The uprising continues, with Hope at Bobby’s side, until he discovers that she’s the tyrant’s daughter. Then the tide quickly begins to turn.
This musical cleverly skewers so many things: the living conditions of the poor, tyrannical government control, the takeover of everyday needs and rights and police brutality. But it also serves up smart, funny, clever parodies of familiar Broadway hits, as well. Between Hollman’s catchy score and Kotis’ tongue-in-cheek writing, audiences will recognize songs and iconic scenes reminiscent of “Les Miserables,” “West Side Story,” “The Threepenny Opera,” and many others.
Helping guide the audience’s enjoyment, director Stephen Schellhardt, musical director Charlotte Rivard-Hoster and choreographer Aubrey Adams have added their own trenchant touches to this show. An actor’s actor, Schellhardt’s staging is brisk, well-focused and mines every ounce of comedy from the script, never allowing his talented cast to take their performances overboard. Adams’ choreography pays homage to the classics of musical comedy without becoming carbon copies, and Rivard-Hoster’s musical direction is spot-on and beautifully layered with harmony. Ms. Rivard-Hostner, however, might want to tone down her gifted onstage five-piece band,, so as to not overpower the singers. Either that or whoever’s controlling the actors’ body mics needs to amp up their volume a bit.
Once again, BoHo has a stellar cast on hand for this latest production. Babyfaced, charismatic leading man Henry McGinniss (“Bat Boy,” “The Addams Family”) makes a dynamic Bobby Strong. His crystal clear voice somehow manages to soar above the accompaniment and allow Kotis’ droll and lively lyrics rest easy on the ear. He creates a character worthy of the leadership and confidence he exudes. He’s matched by lovely Courtney Mack’s Hope Cladwell. Taking Chicago audiences by storm in shows like “Heathers, the Musical” and “Tony & Nancy: the Rock Opera,” Ms. Mack once again dazzles, this time as the Pollyanna princess who does an about face and becomes the show’s unexpected heroine. Although she’s sometimes drowned by the accompaniment, Ms. Mack possesses a beautifully clear soprano that befits this role. She’s spirited and tender, but when the tables are turned we discover there’s also a fierce warrior hidden beneath that lovely white-striped dress.
A number of supporting characters take the lead in this production. They include a cool, calm and collected Officer Lockstock, played with command and dry wit by Scott Danielson, the incredibly talented and ever-surprising Donterrio Johnson, as the villainous, money hungry Caldwell B. Cladwell, and the showstopping Molly Kral, who rises above all, both dramatically and vocally, as the tough-as-nails Penelope Pennywise.
Other company members making big names for themselves in this production are Ariana Burks, as the disarmingly precocious and shrewdly knowing Little Sally and Tommy Bullington as Lockstock’s yes-man and fellow bully, Officer Barrel, a policeman harboring a secret crush. Ensemble members Demi Zaino, Garret Lutz and Nick Graffagna are all striking, multitalented standouts in this musical, tackling a variety of roles with ease, with Desiree Staples evoking sympathy as Bobby’s mother, Josephine Strong. Cladwell’s henchmen are played by Jonathan Schwart and Peter Robel, as Mr. McQueen and Senator Fipp, men who relish living high on the hog in the employ of their evil boss.
Mr. Schellhardt stages his production admirably within the tight, modestly adaptable confines devised by scenic designer Tony Churchill, lit by G. “Max” Maxin IV and beautifully costumed in ragtag, patchwork fashions by Elizabeth Wislar.
Free spirited BoHo Theatre continually ups the ante, producing timely, thought-provoking plays and musicals that explore the nonconformity of the artist’s intellect. This popular, highly praised, controversial 16-year-old satire feels as relevant as today’s headlines. It will make audiences laugh and ponder how this futuristic fantasy could actually be portraying the despicable politics and climate changes of our own times. For now, however, just realize that it’s a privilege to pee.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 4-March 26 by BoHo Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available at the box office, by calling 773-327-5252 or by going to www.BoHoTheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.