- The Washington Times - Monday, August 22, 2005

Take a steady stream of irreverent humor, a flood of exceptional performances and a dribble of delicious irony and you’ve got “Urinetown,” a fantastic musical with a lousy title by Greg Kotis and composer Mark Hollmann.

Joe Calarco directs Signature’s winning production, the first regional staging of the 2002 Tony Award-winning musical outside of New York.

Mr. Calarco’s dream cast includes Will Gartshore, Sherri Edelen, Donna Migliaccio, Stephen F. Schmidt, Eleasha Gamble, Evan Casey, Steven Cupo and Jenna Sokolowski, to name a few, and he uses their abundant talents to bring this lyrical and satirical show to caustic life.

Needless to say, a show named “Urinetown” is rife with parody and spoofs of theatrical conventions. The germ of the musical was born after a broke Mr. Kotis backpacked through Europe and found out he was unable to afford the pay toilets.

Borrowing heavily from the social dramas of 1930s (think of those by Clifford Odets, only with jazz-dancing), “Urinetown” is set in a bedraggled Depression-era city, where 20 years of drought has resulted in the monopolization of public amenities by big-business.



Home plumbing has been banned, hence citizens’ bladders are controlled by the villainous Caldwell B. Cladwell (Christopher Bloch) and his UGC Corporation (which stands for “Urine Good Company”). In other words, if you don’t pay, you don’t go.

A custodian, Bobby Strong (Will Gartshore, whose muscled strut reminds you of a gym-rat version of “Carousel’s” Billy Bigelow, but with a Chippendales shirt) decides to take on the monopoly and give everyone the urination liberation they deserve. His rallying of the people during the Act 1 finale is a hilarious take on the big number from “Les Miserables,” only with mops and plungers replacing patriotic flags and banners.

Even those with an average knowledge of musical theater will find plenty to howl over in Mr. Calarco’s ravenously innovative approach to the show. He and choreographer Karma Camp cram “Urinetown’s” musical numbers with wicked homages to “West Side Story,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Threepenny Opera,” “Our Town,” “Evita” and a rapid-fire recapping of the entire show that will seem wittily familiar to anyone recalling the song “Betrayed” from “The Producers.”

“Urinetown’s” biggest inspiration is Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, and the musical teems with mock-Brechtian references, including the faces of the cast looking ghastly in the footlights, piteous strains of street music and a general air of squalid decadence. At times, the staging recalls Signature’s grisly and gorgeous productions of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” the show that put the theater on the map.

“Urinetown” even makes fun of itself, with frequent asides to the audience from the narrator, Officer Lockstock (a marvelously deadpan Stephen F. Schmidt), who patiently explains to Little Sally (Jenna Sokolowski, quite a find as the curious and creepily wise-beyond-her-years child), who cannot get over the title of the show and the fact numerous characters experience horrific deaths.

It’s something you’d never see in, say, “Mamma Mia!” — the importance of short exposition and sticking to one main idea in a good musical.

Any show as darkly unconventional and bizarre as “Urinetown” needs a cast that can handle parody without going overboard.

Signature’s troupe is almost absurdly talented, at the top of their game both vocally and as actors. Mr. Gartshore expertly purloins his own seemingly effortless singing and movie star physique as Bobby Strong, while Erin Driscoll possesses a voice that provides opera-worthy thrills wrapped in a droll 1930s-era cutie pie package as Hope, his plucky love interest. Miss Driscoll and Mr. Gartshore adopt musical styles from gospel to torch song and love ballad in their numbers “Follow Your Heart,” “Look At The Sky” and “Run, Freedom, Run.” Sherri Edelen wins the instant visual humor award for her portrayal of Little Becky Two Shoes, sporting a fright wig, eye patch, leg brace and massively pregnant belly. Donna Migliaccio pulls off an even more humorously depraved character than Mrs. Lovett from “Sweeney Todd,” quite a nifty trick. Thomas Adrian Simpson is oily perfection as a corrupt politician while Christopher Bloch beautifully combines a genial demeanor with amoral actions as the corporate CEO Caldwell B. Cladwell.

In the case of “Urinetown,” you really gotta go.

****

WHAT: “Urinetown,” music and lyricsby Mark Hollmann, book and lyrics by Greg Kotis

WHERE: Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 9.

TICKETS: $31 to $55

PHONE: 800/955-5566

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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