“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.
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.