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theater review: Urinetown: It...ll Remind You of What You Know

Musical Spoof Is a Jumble of a Journey

By Rosa Cao


MIT Musical Theatre Guild

Produced by Matt Ciborowski ’08

Directed by Tim Abrahamsen ’06

With Steven Flowers ’06, Nori Pritchard ’06, Nicolina Akraboff ’07, Darrell Cain ’08, Koyel Bhattacharyya ’09

La Sala de Puerto Rico

Jan. 27-29 and Feb. 2-4, 2006

Urinetown is death. Urinetown is misery. You really don’t want to be in Urinetown. Here you are, however, facing a grim little stage with a riff-raff of raggedy performers and an orchestra just out of tune enough to reinforce the general rundown atmosphere.

Yes, you’re in Urinetown, a peri-apocalyptic pasquinade where the stars are piss, desperation, and poverty with a capital pee. Lest a sudden urge to biological necessity discourage you from reading further, let me say quickly: there are plenty of laughs and appealing moments amidst the general squalor in this raucous spoof.

Among the most memorable were Bobby Strong et al.’s hilarious rendition of “Run, Freedom, Run,” a simultaneous send-up of pretentious a capella arrangements performed by Preppy Young Things, and the Black Preacher Man leading his congregation in a rousing spiritual.

There’s the token mad scientist, decked out in goggles and a bouffant cap. His helpless laughing spasms, hapless warnings, and bunny capers were a screeching hit. It seems that even at MIT, the nerd gets no respect.

Blondes, on the other hand, really do have more fun. Nori Pritchard ’06 hits just the right note with Hope Cladwell, the pure-hearted daughter of corporate goon Caldwell B. Cladwell (Darrell Cain ’08), taking her from the joys of faxing and copying to her very own moment as Evita.

Then there’s Koyel Bhattaracharyya ’09, who made a deeply satisfying Penelope Pennywise: smart, tough, and (of course) with that good heart and tragic romantic history you always suspected was hiding under the callous exterior.

It would be unfair, too, not to mention what a great job Caitlin Shindler ’03 did with the costumes. Such artful rags, such pointed elegance. Here were social, economic, and personal character given perfect sartorial expression.

“Urinetown” takes a little while to get going, and yet manages not to present much content that’s worthy of analysis. There’s a weird undertow that prevents even the microcosm of Urinetown from making sense. We find the common man would lay waste to environmental resources while UGC “Urine Good Company” is committed to rationing it and practicing conservation. Corporations replace government as Big Brother, monitoring everyone’s pee. Is this the tragedy of the commons updated for a century of environmental disaster, perhaps? How does a drought affect peeing, anyway? ... I give up.

Gilbert and Sullivan — the original musical satirists — used stock characters with ridiculous names in ridiculous scenarios, clever libretti, and catchy melodies with timely political commentary to balance the comedy. By contrast, the song-and-dance numbers in “Urinetown” are far more impressive for their choreography and physical panache (kudos to Janet Lieberman ’07 and the featured dancers) than for musical or other content.

Caldwell does a glorious evocation of Big Pharma in his speech about looking for long-term solutions (how about some R & D on alternative flushing?) while money goes rolling in from the pee-fees on the poor. But what could have been a powerful satire on corporate exploitation, political corruption, and the consequences of environmental devastation is gutted by its own insecurities. Writers Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman have infused their script with the self-deprecating tic of intelligent young things: they have to be the first to make fun of themselves, to forestall potential criticism from anyone else.

This is a shame, because some characters are just begging to be taken seriously. Bobby Strong, for one, thanks to Stephen Flowers ’06’s fine acting and physical presence, would have made a convincing revolutionary. If that would have veered too close to making us actually care about him to satisfy this musical’s Brechtian roots, then he could have at least expressed some better arguments. There’s Little Sally (Nicolina Akraboff ’07), who if only she had been allowed to go on a little bit more about “hydraulics” could have added depth, content, and context.

“Urinetown,” for all its pseudo-intellectual natter, falls short of significance. When it comes to not taking yourself seriously, there really can be too much of a good thing.