OREM — If you have never seen Urinetown, you are missing out on a delightfully metatheatrical parody of theatre and society. It is now playing at the Hale Center Theatre Orem under the direction of Dave Tinney, and the company does the musical justice, despite the small stage at Hale Center Theater. The cast I saw on Saturday night is talented—many of them stellar—but the show is constrained on a stage too small to make this production over-the-top.
Urinetown is the brainchild of Greg Kotis. Kotis was traveling Europe as a young adult and found himself in the situation of having to choose between using his scant funds for food or the pay-per-use toilets. He thought up the premise for a play set place in a town where, due to water shortages, the people were forced to save up all their money for their potty breaks and sent to “Urinetown” if they broke the law by relieving themselves elsewhere in the city. With help from composer and lyricist Mark Hollmann, the play became a reality and eventually made it to Broadway in the fall of 2001, earning it 9 Tony Award nominations and winning for Best Direction, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score.
From the onset, the play establishes itself as a parody of musical theatre with the introduction of Officer Lockstock (Taylor Eliason) as the narrator who explains the premise of the production to the character Little Sally (Amber Dodge) and the audience. The poor are introduced waiting at Public Amenity #9 for the “morning pee.” Penelope Pennywise (Marcie Jacobsen) runs Public Amenity #9 with the help of Bobby Strong (Alex King). Strong’s father, Old Man Strong (Greg Hansen) can’t afford to use the toilet, breaks the law, and is hauled away to Urinetown. This catapults Bobby Strong into the role of the hero as he seeks freedom for all those deprived of the free use of the facilities. He is helped in his journey by Hope Caldwell (Rachel Lynn Woodward), the daughter of Caldwell B. Cladwell (Chris H. Brower), the mastermind behind the toilet fees. Together they discover some surprising revelations and succeed in making big changes in their town, for better and worse.
Despite the title and premise of the musical, there is less toilet humor in the play than one might think. Urinetown‘s success rides on its originality and humor that is based first on wit and parody and then physical comedy. Toilet references there are plenty, but fart jokes there are none. And none, I think are in very poor taste (relatively speaking). Tinney’s direction highlights the humor in every place, using pace and pause to advantage. Unfortunately, the show suffers for want of space. It plays in the round on a very small stage, and although the cast often occupies the perimeter of that stage, it is still too confining. There are very few of the company numbers that work really well (although “Snuff that Girl” and “Run, Freedom, Run” are exceptions). The choreography, also by Tinney, is often limited to marching, as if there is no space for the actors to move but in place. This is too bad, because the energy of the cast could have easily sustained more movement.
In the smaller scenes, the stage is less of a problem, and the actors shine. Taylor Eliason as Officer Lockstock easily steps into and out of the roles of detached observer and villainous assistant and is complimented perfectly by Amber Dodge’s Little Sally. Dodge expertly plays “an adult playing a child” in the play, with perfect physicality and vocal manipulation. Alex King and Rachel Lynn Woodward as Bobby Strong and Hope Cladwell are another dynamic duo, with their “Follow Your Heart” duet a stand-out. Strong embraces the trappings of musical theatre heroism without falling into caricature, and this assists him as he brings the house down leading the company in “Run, Freedom, Run.” Woodward does play more of a “type,” but it is inherent in her role, clearly modeled on the “dumb blond” heroines of stage and screen. That said, she gives it all she has in every scene, even when strapped and gagged. Chris H. Brower is also physically confined in the play. A lá the crotchety Mr. Potter of It’s a Wonderful Life, Caldwell B. Cladwell is confined to a wheelchair for the majority of the play but Brower does wonders, even so. Regular Hale audiences will recognize him, and new audiences will gather he is a seasoned stage veteran. So, too, Marcie Jacobsen as Penelope Pennywise brings much-appreciated experience to the stage. The rest of the company also delights with clear characterization, focus, and fun.
Given the talent on in the show, it is a pity that the sound was subpar. Theatre in the round is difficult, to be sure, but the Hale is experienced with using this stage. Quite simply, the actors were too often drowned out by the music, even though they wore microphones. In the large company numbers the words of the songs were too often incomprehensible. Hopefully this will be fixed.
As noted, the size of the stage was unsatisfactory, but the simple set design, by Bobby Swenson was suitable. The round stage was painted as a manhole cover and the rear wall of the theatre was covered with pipes, both real and painted, to represent the sewer. It was dark and dirty, but adequately communicated the desired mood, which was also enhanced by the lighting design by Cody Swenson. In addition to the overhead lights, there were lights built into the perimeter of the stage that were effectively used in under-lighting, as were flashlights in various scenes, conveying a certain amount of the grotesque.
The costume design by Maryann Hill was flawless with the characters dressed for depression-era to mid-twentieth century, communicating the necessary poverty in the play and the parody of Broadway’s Golden Age.
In short, though Urinetown at the Hale Center Theatre Orem may not live up to the Broadway-sized show it has the potential to be, it does not disappoint, either. It’s a good musical to attend if you are an avid theatre-lover, but it is also a good musical to serve as introduction to the theatre. It leaves the audience wanting more and appreciating the potential for the creative possibilities of the stage.