PROVO — As I sat at intermission of the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s admirable The Pirates of Penzance last month, I mentioned to my companion that BYU was putting on Urinetown soon, to which an stranger suddenly interrupted, “Urinetown is great! You must see it!” After a command like that, how could I not?
The silly-named musical is indeed onstage at Brigham Young University, directed by graduate student Caleb Andrus as a capstone project. I’m no professor, but Andrus should get more than a passing grade.
Believe it or not, Urinetown has a prestigious history. The 2001 musical enjoyed almost 1,000 performances on Broadway and hauled in three Tonys for including best book (by Greg Kotis) and score (by Mark Hollmann). It is an excellent choice for a university, with its small tech requirements, stock characters, and oodles of dark satire about societal ills and systems of power over two hours of killer jokes and music.
The musical tells of a dark future where an all-powerful corporation/government entity decides the best solution for their city’s severe drought is to restrict urination. If people have to pay to relieve themselves, the theory goes, they will drink less. Those guilty of relieving themselves outside public urinals are punished by exile to Urinetown. The whole play is ridiculous, over-the-top, cartoonish and very funny.
The story centers on hero Bobby Strong, played with wide-eyed confidence by AJ Nielsen, who rebels against the evil Urine Good Company, ruled by the despotic Caldwell B. Caldwell, portrayed by Braeden Anderson. Nielsen’s Strong is a sympathetic and likable hero and Anderson’s greasy Caldwell is appropriately dour and self-possessed.
The minimalist stage (oh, so popular these days) used a desk and a lamp with a single exposed light bulb, with the back wall covered in rebel slogans and segments of exposed brick. A collection of dried rags overhead completed scenic designer Elisabeth Goulding’s vision of “the poorest, filthiest urinal in town,” as the playbill says.
Also on stage were chairs for the actors who were not performing and a clothes rack for costume changes. I enjoyed seeing off-duty actors react freely to the musical like patrons and even sing along. This loose, open approach to theater along with constant fourth-wall breaking commentary have certainly been en vogue since the musical debuted 20 years ago. Among the show’s best meta commentary was narrator Officer Lockstock (played by Caleb Brown) teasing the audience whether Urinetown is a real place or simply a state of mind, and street urchin Little Sally (played by Jessica Ashby) optimistically enthusing that hope is never truly lost in a musical with an orphan as cute as her.
Cast musical numbers were among the best I have heard. The talents of the cast and musical director Megan Smith created magnificently tight group numbers with flawless blend, tone, and diction. Particularly impressive was the cast remaining on-key during a lengthy a capella segment of the gospel number “Run, Freedom, Run!” Individually, each lead student actor showed impressive vocal skills, although their limits (particularly low parts for the men) were sometimes apparent.
Andrus chose his cast well. Every actor deserves praise for character work and comedic expression. Ben Jessop was an appropriately slimy and slick Senator Fipp, and Jessica Zaugg was confident and expressive in a supporting role as Soupy Sue. Ashby gave a well-realized performance as the likable Little Sally with heaping helpings of pluck and innocence. While each of the actors has room to grow and improve their craft, their talent is far beyond those at other nearby universities.
Andrus’s direction employed a large amount of geometric shapes to space actors with square grids, triangles and lines galore. It was generally effective, although a little more natural spacing wouldn’t hurt—and there were one too many can-cans in the space of 10 minutes. (It might not be a coincidence that the only serious musical flub the start of the second one.) The cast-enabled spinning of the romantic leads around each other and Strong’s fate were stand-out moments by the director.
Speaking of spacing and movement, choreographer Rachel Fonseca had a tall task with multiple numbers. I was a little nervous when I saw a box step in the first number, but all was quickly forgiven as Fonseca proved a formidable force with fun and lively choreography. Her energetic “Snuff That Girl” was particularly noteworthy. Lighting by Aaron Justvig involved a general malaise of darkness mixed with harsh backlight from the exposed bulb. And Ethan Stokes did admirable work as the on-stage pianist.
Costumes by Claire Eyestone and hair/makeup by Marguerite Morgan were outstanding. Caldwell’s slick back-do harkened both Gordon Gecko and Eric Trump, while Fipp’s camera-ready politician do was superb. Caldwell’s great coats contrasted well with the lower classes’ ugly brown and mustard yellow clothes (let those colors sink in for a minute—or not). The brown wallpaper patterns on the female plebs were particularly delightful. (One quick tip to females in the cast: Don’t adjust clothes on stage. Trust the leotard!)
Urinetown is broad, slapstick comedy with a serious dark strea,; and its late plot twists and “off Broadway” vibe have a distinct Little Shop of Horrors feel. BYU’s website recommends this show for ages 12 and up, which feels right. The whole show really is about pee, and there are about half a dozen comedic simulated urinations on stage (never has a bottle of Minute Maid apple juice been put to such use) and a fair amount of profanity.
If you are looking to dip your toe into Urinetown for the first time, that’s, gross. But BYU’s student-directed production is a good place to start . The appreciative audience laughed from beginning to end, and this production was by all measures a success.
I had been curious about this odd musical for years, initially put off (like many, I assume) by the bizarre title (which is mocked multiple times in the show). After seeing it, I can positively say that no other title would do: Urinetown is Urinetown. And for those who dare, delights abound.