I’ll gladly drive the 45 minutes to Visalia for the privilege to pee.
The College of the Sequoias theater department tackles “Urinetown,” the musical with perhaps the most unappealing title in the world, in a smoothly directed, mostly solid performance that continues through Saturday.
Boasting a couple of top-notch performances from its female leads and often creatively staged by Chris Mangels, the show — a dystopian political allegory in which water is so rare that residents of a beleaguered city have to pay for the privilege of relieving themselves — hits many of the high points for which it’s been known ever since a 2001 Broadway debut. Among them: a snide, silly cynicism laced with more darkness than you’d expect; clever send-ups of the Broadway genre; and, especially, some great songs delivered well. (“But the music’s so happy,” the character of Little Sally exclaims when she’s reminded this is not a happy musical.)
That said, this production doesn’t flush with quite the ferocity it could have. There are some weaknesses.
But also a lot of strengths.
Chief among those strengths are performances by Taylor Abels and Danielle Jorn. Abels plays Hope Cladwell, the perky heroine, whose wide-eyed idealism runs smack into the bleak lives of the city’s residents, who desperately line up every morning outside a state-controlled “public amenity” to spend their last few pennies to use the restroom. (You can’t just pee in the bushes, we’re reminded; there are laws against that.) Abels is terrific. Over the past year, she’s just kept getting better and better in terms of vocals and acting in the wide variety of roles I’ve seen from her (including Natalie in “Next to Normal” and Anne in “A Little Night Music”). Her Hope is sassy, sweet and strong.
Jorn is a highlight as well, playing the bitter Miss Pennywise — who runs the local public amenity — with an invigorating stage presence. When she nailed the final high note in “It’s a Privilege to Pee,” I gulped and thought: Wow.
Abels and Jorn are well-known for their visibility in the Fresno-area theater scene. So are several other cast members who shine. Peter Allwine, in the villainous role of Caldwell B. Cladwell, the ruthless corporate architect of the fee-for-urination scheme, has a grand time spewing bluster. (His vocals are rich and resonant as well.) In a smaller but memorable role, Matthew Freitas is a excellent Mr. McQueen, right-hand man to Cladwell, infusing every movement on stage with a swishy disdain. (I could tell it was Freitas by his posture even before the lights came up on a scene.)
Other “non Fresno” actors in the cast who stand out are Haleigh Cook as a spot-on Little Sally, and Natashia DaCunha as Little Becky Two-Shoes and Steven Braswell as Hot Blades Harry, who give us a rousing “Snuff That Girl.”
Daniel Rodriguez, in the role of Bobby Strong — who ends up leading the city’s residents against the oppressive regime — offers some fine acting moments as the leading man, but his vocals were a little thin at the Sunday matinee I saw.
And while I have a high regard for Fresno theater veteran Terry Lewis, his key role of Officer Barrel (who also serves as the narrator) just didn’t do it for me. His singing was strained and the range seemed too low for him. More than that, he seemed miscast. It just isn’t the part for Lewis, whose natural warmth as an actor clashes with the beguiling menace of the character.
What gets lost as a result with Lewis at the helm as narrator is some of the comic crispness and swagger of Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’ music, book and lyrics. This is a show that both uses the Brechtian device of highlighting the fact that we are at a play, with the narrator periodically interrupting the show to comment on its structure, but also mocks that device as well. This subtle, acerbic tone of the material too often is overwhelmed in this staging.
It didn’t help that the audience at the matinee performance I saw was small and, for the most part, nearly comatose. And they didn’t seem to be getting a lot of the jokes, especially the backhanded theater references. “Urinetown” requires a certain minimum theater literarcy, or at least a willingness to embrace cynicism. Did the mediocre audience (of which I freely admit I was a part, though I’m not the booming-laughter type) influence my reaction to the performance? I tried not to let it, but it was hard not to. I admit there were a couple of times I wanted to turn to my neighbor and say, “See, it’s a ‘West Side Story’ joke. Get it?”
Mangels’ scenic design, Nick Terry’s sound design and James McDonnell’s costumes are solid. But Danielle Behrens’ choreography is a little clompy and overly mannered, sometimes bordering on juvenile. And Steve Lamar’s lighting design is disappointing, with a slapdash feel that includes key characters at times singing in near darkness. I can understand wanting to try for a murky, menacing sensibility to match the material, but this just looked sloppy.
Still, this ambitious production has a lot to recommend for it, from Mangels’ inventive staging (including the use of puppets) to the enthusiasm of the cast itself. Topping it all off is a very fine pit band conducted by Rod Henczel and featuring Anthony Taylor, Leonardo Esparza, Alexis Holladay and Katie Steinhauer. (Esparza’s trombone is superb, just as good as the cast recording.) Yes, the title might be off-putting, but I’m hoping that Visalians and others turn out in greater numbers to see a funny and ultimately thought-provoking show, even with my slight case of the grumps on the subject. “Go” when you have the chance.