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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Urinetown, the Musical’

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“It’s a privilege to pee,” the desperate crowd sings in “Urinetown, the Musical,” a show about a city so short of water that its citizens have to pay to use the facilities. And it’s a privilege to relieve yourself of the cares of the day and indulge in Fresno State’s wacky and accomplished production of the acerbic Broadway musical.

Indeed, at the start of the show, as you watch members of the ensemble contorting themselves into various positions suggesting that an immediate restroom break would not only be desirable but essential, you become aware just how dedicated this cast and crew is when it comes to bringing the audience into a bizarre and amusing world. They can’t wait to go for it. So to speak.

From the musical’s light-hearted self-referential Broadway jabs (complete with “Les Miserables” spoof) and merry songs to its darker impulses involving environmental disaster, corporate greed and the tyranny of the masses, “Urinetown” connects on a number of levels. It’s funny, tuneful, sardonic and downright thoughtful, which is quite an accomplishment considering the subject matter.

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Above, Miles Gaston Villanueva and Aimee Bray star in ‘Urinetown, the Musical.’

Brad Myers’ direction is strong and snappy. The production design is terrific — especially Brent Foland’s gorgeous costumes, which look good enough to be in a professional production, Izzy Einsidler’s lighting design and Royce Matthews’ aerobic choreography — and the show is finely acted. (The singing is perhaps a little less impressive.) In terms of stage impact, I’m not talking just about a few choice roles here that stand out. Every member of the cast, from the lead roles to the back row of the ensemble, acts as if he or she is the focus of every eye in the audience. The energy is enthralling.

The only major flaw on opening night was the sound design. It was terrible. In the first act, most of the principal performers sounded tinny and muddy. Lyrics were hard to understand, and the balance between singers and the small pit orchestra badly out of whack. I’m always extremely leery of a saxophone player in such a small group, and sure enough, the sax bullied both the other musicians and singers in terms of volume.

It was tremendously disappointing for the sound to be as poor as it was because “Urinetown” is so dependent on pithy one-liners, razor-sharp timing and a cohesive back story to be successful. (Even though one of the characters declares that nothing can kill a musical like “too much exposition,” this show actually has more than most.) Fresno State brought in an outside sound designer, Walter T.J. Clissen, whose credentials are impeccable, so it’s clear that the university’s theater department thought the sound was important. But I think a problem is that the university only does a musical every other year, which isn’t enough for the department to develop the institutional expertise needed to master the very specific technical sound demands of the genre.

But enough about the disappointing sound. (I’m confident it will get better as the run continues, so much so that I want to see the show again.) The story of “Urinetown,” narrated by a swaggering cop named Officer Lockstock (a delightful Miles Gaston Villanueva), is a hoot. This is a society in which water is so scarce that in order to avoid a repeat of the dreaded “Stink Years,” in which anarchy reigned, people have to pay to use the toilet. If someone does it for “free” on the sidewalk, or in private without paying, it’s a criminal offense, and he or she is carted off to Urinetown, a vague place of horrific punishment.

Greg Kotis’ book is cheeky enough to deny all implausibilities, and the musical stays one step ahead of itself by mocking the conventions of the genre and its own storyline. (Why focus so much on sewage-related issues and not on other uses of water? Because, Officer Lockstock explains, musicals have to simplify the storyline so the audience won’t have to work too hard.) When the hero of the show, a feisty young man named Bobby Strong (a charismatic Kelly Sanchez, who throws himself into every moment on stage with a captivating, high-energy musical-theater presence but whose voice was not as strong on opening night as his hero character demands), encourages the downtrodden masses to rebel against the corporately owned public toilets, it sets the stage for a conflict between the haves and the have-nots.

Villanueva, as the strutting cop, is just the right combination of hamming-it-up and restraint. As director, Myers is particularly astute at walking the line between nuance and camp, and the show is filled with brilliant little bits of theater pleasure: the way that Sanchez spreads his arms out for a second time at the end of the rousing number “Run Freedom, Run” (just a beat longer than the lead singer would in a “normal” musical); the leer on Rhiannon Fernandez’s face as the around-the-block Penelope Pennywise; the snarl in Danielle Jorn’s voice as a feisty member of the ensemble; the penetrating smarminess of Adam Schroeder as his toadying character launches into a choreographed spoof of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

There are some fine voices in the show, most notably Darren Tharp, Sarah J. Lofgren and Jacque Babb, and some notable body language as well, including Daren Esqueda and Matthew McGee.

And we can’t forget the endearing Aimee Bray, who plays a little street urchin named Little Sally. Paired up with Officer Lockstock, her character hopes that next time she can be in a “happy musical.” I don’t know, Sally: Even though it’s a privilege to do you know what, you make “Urinetown” a downright jaunty place.

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: ‘Urinetown, the Musical’"

J says:

Let me be the first to say that this is a very fair review for a very great show. Urinetown shouldn’t be missed by anyone who digs the whole musical theater scene.

Media Hack says:

What a relief. I wasn’t the only person who had problems with the sound and understanding the lyrics. I was a little worried that my hearing was going Friday night. “Has listening to my iPod too loud ruined my ears,” I thought to myself?

Apart from the sound issues, I thought the production was spot on. And, wow, Miles was really good. But heck he could read from the telephone book and I would be enthralled.

My favorite moment opening night, though, was the scary image of Brad Myers heaving his, um, impressive frame down the aisle midway through the second act to berate an audience member for taking a flash photo in the middle of the production.

For a moment there, I thought he was going to pick up the offending party and body slam him or her like Andre the Giant did back in the WWF days.

Anyway, Hail Mathus!!

Warren says:

You dinged FGO’s program notes… how about the crappy FSU program notes? Every production I know who got a scholarship and which professor donated $50 but I never know much about… well… about the actual production.

Could FSU actually use their donor money to hire someone to produce a decent program?

Shelby says:

Thanks so much for posting this review. I’m from southern california and I’m going on a college visit tomorrow at Fresno. I’m really interested in the theatre program so I’m going to see the show, now I’m excited. Thanks for letting me know what to look for. This is a great site. Good work.

P.S. I’ve been working on writing reviews and I have to say this is one darn good, elequently written review.

Albert says:

Fresno for college? Fresno for theatre? Leaving So Cal for Fresno……..ummmmmm.

Greg says:

I saw the show last night and loved it! The acting was good but the designs were outstanding. The lighting was so cool and I think the designer did a tremendous job. I also thought the direction was great-

see it!

Eric says:

This is a must see! I saw the show last night and LOVED it! The energy from the cast just exploded off that stage and I was so impressed with how COMMITTED everyone was to making it work. Kudos to Brad, Scott, the musicians, the cast and the entire production team for a job very well done indeed!

Gra'ma says:

Brad Meyers must be commended for bringing Urinetown to Fresno and for surrounded himself with extremely talented individuals; Scott Hancock, Musical Direction, and Royce Matthews, Choreography.
Mr. Matthews’ choreography of Mr. Cladwell, Cop Song, and Don’t be the Bunny was clever, and hilarious. I wanted a
“re-run”. The show was “finely acted” by all, however, Miles Villanueva, Matthew Mcgee, and Aimee Bray, for me, were outstanding. They were perfectly cast.
I am also extremely disappointed with the sound. I plan on going again and bringing several friends. I do hope that the sound issues have been resolved.
Urinetown is energetic, funny, and worth seeing… at least twice. You will regret it if you don’t.