'Urinetown' review or 'I can't afford to spend a penny!'
URINETOWN The Musical
St James Theatre, Friday 7th April 2014
Written for Blouin Artinfo
“Urinetown” is taking the piss. This whacky musical is set sometime in the future when water is scarce and the public, desperate in every sense of the word, must pay to pee. There’s a love ballad in which the hero is soaked in blood, a song and dance about human rabbits and an entire act set in a sewer. If this musical wasn’t so brilliant it’d be downright terrible.
Composer Mark Hollmann bagged a Tony for his score and Greg Kotis snared two Tonys for his book and lyrics. These awards are richly deserved. The score is sumptuous and varied, packed with toe-tapping musical numbers, breezy swing and luscious gospel songs. The book manages to be gloriously camp yet viciously cynical, spectacularly over the top but cruel and frightening too.
There’s a green and hazy tinge to Soutra Gilmour’s imposing design, which is a metal framed beast set over two floors. The first act takes place outside a public urinal and the second, deep in the sewers. Director Jamie Lloyd’s show steams ahead at full throttle and embraces the off-beat script head on.
In a clever move, Lloyd has cast excellent actors rather than musical experts. It really pays off; the whacky characters feel that much sharper and the sassy script sings. Shakespeare pro Jonathan Slinger play Officer Lockstock, who is also the show’s narrator. He guides us through the production with his tongue wedged firmly in his check.
Simon Paisley Day is brilliantly vile as Caldwell B Cladwell, head of the sewer company “Urine Good Company.” This baddy is as eccentric as they come. He is obsessed with rabbits and sounds like he’s dying inside every time he speaks. Paisley Day doesn’t have much of a singing voice but his big number, “Don’t Be the Bunny,” is sung with devilish accuracy and charm.
There are no straight roles and even the romantic hero, Bobby Strong, is an oddball. Richard Fleeshman plays the part as a sort of demented Ken doll and pushes out his pecs at every possible moment. Rosanna Hyland is the barmy Barbie to Fleeshman’s Ken and is excellent as Hope Cladwell, our naive heroine who spends far too much time literally listening to her heart.
Choreographer Ann Yee carves out a series of witty routines. In one memorable number the cast hop about wildly, desperate to go to the loo. The actors look like a group of electrocuted zombies as they wildly judder and stalk about the stage.
But this isn’t just a silly piece of escapism. Lloyd’s production might be very funny but it is also bloody and violent and resonant. In one disturbing scene, three chalk-faced victims are beaten up by invisible officers. The politics of this piece glimmer threateningly. As the world population grows and resources grow scarce, we’re arguably planting the seeds for our own destruction. We’re blindly dancing towards our deaths – and laughing as we go.