Urinetown, the Musical, book, music and lyrics by Mark Holman and Greg Kotis. Directed by Sky Vogel.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Mark "Monk" Schane-Lydon and Eleah Peal; photo: Daniel Region
"I don’t know how to listen to my heart."
Deep in the depressing future when water is such a scarce commodity that human pee becomes a desirable, sought-after resource - the authors of this musical tell us - not only do mega-firms need to acquire it they have forced legislation which compels people to pay to provide it to that company. The logic of this is hard to grasp. As possessors of the natural resource those providers should be paid, not have to pay, to pee. This one minor flaw in reason aside, a musical about the rebellion of humanity against its dictatorial de-humanizers is one of the most enjoyable romps imaginable.
If you are a fan of classic musicals there is so much here to get off on: Brechtian style imposed upon by Jerome Robbins form of choreography; Kurt Weill-like music with alarming rip-offs of Bernstein, Jerry Herman, Kander and Ebb and, most especially, Mark Blitzstein; sophistication in the mouths of children and inverse philosophy in the mouths of political leaders. At its best this show is pure entertainment and at its worst it is pretty much the same thing. In its new production at the Ghent Playhouse in Ghent, New York, it is without a doubt the finest musical theater experience this company has produced since their now classic edition of Stephen Sondheim’s "Follies" a great many years back.
This company has been prepared and rehearsed to perfection. Director Sky Vogel, who played the villainous Caldwell Cladwell in another production of the show at the Theatre Barn in New Lebanon, has envisioned a complete show and brought it to ideal life. Perhaps his earlier experience with the piece has given him insights that he could not use in his own performance, which I recall being less than perfect. Whatever has brought him to this stage with this realization, the result is a show that feels right on every level, from casting to movement, from parody to sincerity. This show is his own gift to the region and one we should accept gratefully and enjoy as much as possible.
The narrative and moral center of the play is Officer Lockstock, played with more agility and ability than anticipated by Mark "Monk" Schane-Lydon. Following memorable, over-the-top performances Schane-Lydon is, in this play, a master of restraint, a singer of lyric charm and a charmer of frightening proportions. He may find future roles that please him, but it will be hard to find a role in which he pleases more. Here he is truly worth the price of a ticket.
As his sophisticated twelve-year-old companion, Little Sally, newcomer to the Ghent arena Eleah Peal is shear perfection. She asks us to find a new word for "coy" and a new descriptive for "marvelous" because neither of these goes far enough to give the bigger picture of her performance. Similarly the Penny Pennywise of actress Amy Fiebke is a revelation of seductive evil. Fiebke takes on the sensual side of Penny without making her ridiculous while at the same time showing us what a useful tool is sensuality when it is applied to commerce. She should stop the show with her second song, "Why Did I Listen to That Man?" but she can’t because the authors won’t allow it. But she should.
The lovers, and leaders, of this show’s plot are played by Kaitlin Pearson (Hope), Tracy Trimm (Old Man Strong), Kathy Marin Wohlfeld ("Ma" Strong) and Mike Meier (Bobby Strong) and a finer quartet could not be imagined for these roles. All of them deliver perfect performances with Trimm’s first scene denouncement of the governing board of his town lighting the plot spark that moves the show along, Pearson’s simple sweetness providing the fuel, Wohlfeld’s sincerity and warmth providing the underpinnings of strength (as the family name implies) and Meier’s talent providing the heart of the drama with the soul of the show’s intentions, both musical and dramatic.
There is a resident company here at the Ghent Playhouse that provides a form of entertainment each November known as a "Panto." One of its goals is to make us look at the humor in politics. This show does the same thing and this is a perfect year to take a deeper look into what is happening around us. Although "Urinetown, the Musical" is a decade old, it still is on point in this election year. Cladwell and his gang, including a Senator, know how to make things work for their greedy intent and as we listen to the debates going on right now in Iowa and South Carolina and other places we can find hilarious pre-echoes, reminders, in this show.
Tony Pallone is an excellent Cladwell - you want to hiss him but he’s just too delightfully hateful. Kate Delp Gray makes Senator Fipp into a perfect political enigma and Rebecca Gardner’s aide, McQueen, is a cross-dressing phenomena of reasonable doubt.
The rest of the cast make the human picture even more so as they present us with a mob of individuals whose distinct personalities shine through each scene and musical number. Choreographer Jimmy Robertson does wonders with the bottle dance and wedding dance images from "Fiddler on the Roof" and, with the singing strengths of Zack Marshall as Hot Blades Harry and Christine Smith as Little Becky Two Shoes in the number "Snuff That Girl" he brings us the perfect parody of "Cool" from "West Side Story."
The sets designed by Bill Visscher and Tom Detwiler are among the best this company has produced for a show. Joanne Maurer’s costumes are truly inspired. Grace Fay’s lighting gives us mood and presence and place and time of day. There is a starkness to some of it that actually illuminates the emotions of the scene being lit.
I don’t like to give away the jokes. In the first act finale there is the perfect image for this show that works for the times we live in and the roar of recognition from the opening night audience more than justifies its use. You owe it to yourself to see this production. It may help you make a more informed decision about the next four years of our lives. If I could I would send this company out on a national tour of this perfect musical comedy and, yes, not even death can make this anything less perfect...or comic...or musical.
Urinetown, the Musical plays at the Ghent Playhouse off Route 66 in Ghent, NY through February 5. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-3920-6264.