The musical Urinetown is a curious blend of earnest social commentary and ironic self-awareness. On the one hand, it scolds (if it doesn’t quite skewer) capitalistic-monopolistic command over essential resources; on the other, it satirizes the musical form, itself. It’s a risky proposition, as satire often works best when played brutally straight. The metafictional devices thrown in to Urinetown—the breaking of the fourth wall, the character commentary on the nature of musical theater and of Urinetown, specifically—could serve to mitigate the impact of the criticism.
Of course, as an entertainment mogul in another medium once said, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” Musical theater, like film, might not best suited to political/philosophical proselytizing, in the first place. But a play ending with the battle cry, “Hail, Malthus!” needs some weight for that invocation to seem anything other than a passionate non sequitur.
This will likely come as no surprise, but Urinetown doesn’t provide that weight. The Malthus reference is a striking oddity, likely missed by the majority of the audience. That being said, so what? Malthus isn’t that much fun, anyway. Urinetown, however, is.
The play is set in a near future in which the water table has been severely depleted; so severely, in fact, that only the very wealthy can afford private lavatories. The masses must avail themselves of fee-based facilities owned and operated by the Urine Good Company, which is run by the cold-hearted Caldwell B. Cladwell (Tony Pallone). Though Cladwell’s mercenary resourcefulness has, he says, benefited a society that suffered through many gruesome and unsanitary “stink years,” he maintains his fortune and control through merciless and corrupt means. Politicians are bribed to fast-track exorbitant fee hikes, and the police force is used as a goon squad to permanently silence any opposition.
However, when Cladwell’s daughter, Hope (Kaitlin Pearson), returns from the Most Expensive University in the World, and promptly falls for the idealistic young restroom attendant, Bobby Strong (Michael Meier), it seems revolution is in the air. Sadly, as is revealed in the frequent asides by Officer Lockstock (Mark Schane-Lydon), who serves as the play’s narrator, and Little Sally (Eleah Peal), who serves a co-narrator/conscience, Urinetown is not a happy-ever-after kinda musical. The fates of Bobby and of Hope (yes, of course, “Hope”), lend themselves to any number of bathroom puns, with which Urinetown overflows.
Those puns, depending on one’s affinity for (admittedly PG-level) potty humor, could get a bit tired. Fortunately, the cast of the Ghent Playhouse’s production are so enthusiastic, charming and uniformly talented that it makes up for the occasional thinness of the play, itself. It’s a rare thing, particularly in local theater, to have an ensemble that operates so much on a level. (Often, there’s a kind of bell curve of talent evident.) But from the aforementioned major players (all of whom were delightful) to the smaller supporting roles, this cast brought great character and fun. Director Sky Vogel kept a good, crisp pace and ensured a consistency of comedic tone throughout.
Despite the play’s implicit themes of ecological and economic responsibility, Urinetown is not a particularly hard-hitting satire; it is, as performed by this cast, an engaging, amusing, irreverent musical. Besides, if you want to know who Malthus is, use Wikipedia.