'Urinetown: The Musical' is flush with satire

Audience members who managed to sit through the Howard Community College Arts Collective Production at the Smith Theatre last weekend without squirming in their seats (and even those that just couldn't help it) were privy to a delightful romp through musical satire that was everything its title promises.

"Urinetown: The Musical," with music and lyrics by Mark Hollmann and book and lyrics by Greg Kotis, is a show literally about "pee."

Provocative to its core, the show ridicules the legal system, commercialism and even other populist Broadway musicals while juxtaposing happy toe-tapping songs with a grim plot. But folks who haven't caught up with the Tony-award winning show can rest easy; no one actually urinates onstage (it's not quite that avant garde), except in hilarious pantomime.

Directed and choreographed most capably here by Jenny Male, the show opens on a society where urinating is outlawed except in pay toilets controlled by the mega corporation, Urine Good Company. Narrator Officer Lockstock and Little Sally, played by Cory Jones and Keri Eastridge, reveal up front that a long drought has wreaked a terrible water shortage, making private toilets a thing of the past.

Anyone who breaks the strict laws requiring everyone to pay before they go gets sent to Urinetown, never to return.

The story begins as the poorest of the downtrodden line up at Public Amenity 9, run by Penelope Pennywise (played by Erin Branigan) and her assistant, leading character Bobby Strong, played by Dustin Merrell. Old Man Strong, robustly portrayed by Steve Backus, doesn't have enough coin to pay and begs Pennywise to let him "go" for free.

But even when Bobby speaks up weakly—Pennywise has a soft spot for the "sweet looking boy"—she still refuses. When the old man, who turns out to be Bobby's father, relieves himself in the street, he is arrested and Officer Lockstock and Officer Barrel, played by Gavin Shown, haul him off to Urinetown.

As the two policeman laugh over Old Man Strong's fear as they dragged him away, the audience gets its first hint that Urinetown is something other than a prison colony, and likely a metaphor for something uglier. Before the act is over, Lockstock will confide in Little Sally that Urinetown is not a place at all.

Meanwhile, we meet the evil CEO of Urine Good Company, Caldwell B. Cladwell, played by Ed Higgins, and the corrupt Senator Fipp, played by Amy Chase Martin. Cladwell's one soft spot appears to be his beautiful daughter Hope, played by Katie Chase Martin, who has just returned from college.

As the leading characters who were listed on the New York Theatre Monthly's list of "The 100 Greatest Roles in Musical Theatre" during the show's 2001-04 run on Broadway, Merrell as Bobby Strong and Martin as Hope Cladwell deliver outstanding performances. The star-crossed lovers meet and fall in love just before Bobby and his mother, played by Melissa Valdivia, start a pee-for-free revolution after Hope's father manipulates a fee hike.

The supporting characters are also solidly believable. Eastridge's Little Sally is charmingly innocent in spite of the disturbing questions she asks; Branigan delicately balances Pennywise's hard exterior with the possibility of a softer side; Jones' consistently skillful delivery of Lockstock makes him likable in spite of his inhumane duties; Shown is equally authentic as Lockstock's sidekick, Barrell; Martin as Senator Fipp is irrepressibly wicked; and Higgins as Cladwell makes a delicious villain.

By the end of Act 1, Keith Tittermary's musical direction and the good quality of the singing, dancing and acting performed by the entire company—as well as Ryan Michael Haase's dexterous set, Terry Cobbs' well designed lights and Jessica Welch's apt costumes—have elevated the show from bathroom humor, as sophisticated as the parodies may be, to…well, a cheerfully tasteful satire and very funny musical.

Even Officer Lockstock's congenial inquiries to audience members as they return from intermission, asking if they were comfortable and had any difficulties "going," seem gentrified in context.

Absurdly irreverent and clever, the production does make some serious statements about corruption and social irresponsibility. But true to the writers' intent, the HCC Arts Collective's savvy and upbeat rendition of "Urinetown: The Musical" leaves all that to be contemplated the morning after.

"Urinetown: The Musical" continues through May 13 at HCC's Smith Theatre, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia. Show times are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $10-15. Call 443-518-1500 or go to howardcc.edu.

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