It’s easy to figure why potty humor plays well: we can all relate. Discussing it might be uncouth, but everyone’s had to clinch his or her knees to help hold it in, stifled a laugh for fear of losing a full bladder’s precious grip, or, on finally reaching sweet relief, experienced that transcendent shiver in mid-stream. For exactly the same reason the previous sentence maybe made you squirm—we simply don’t talk about this often, do we?—Urinetown, in all its glorious satire, makes audiences let loose with laughter.
There’s no holding back, no stage fright, here. The musical, currently being staged by the University of Montana’s Department of Drama/Dance and directed by professor Jillian Campana, takes wickedly grinning aim at musical theater, social justice and even itself. And while walloping each, creators Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann actually succeed in telling a story. It’s ridiculous, but I’ll be damned if you don’t end up caring about its twisted outcome.
Urinetown‘s absurd premise is that decades of drought in some urban future have caused a dangerous water shortage. Peeing is now a privilege one must pay for, and the poor cannot. So each day beggars like Little Sally (Tashia Gates), an adorable street urchin, must ask for pennies to relieve themselves at stations such as Amenity No. 9. For those who try to skirt the rules, punishment is a one-way ticket to Urinetown—not the musical, as a self-conscious narrator reminds the audience throughout, but the dark, mythical place where renegade urinaters go to die. This is the perfect backdrop for strapping young revolutionary Bobby Strong (an outstanding Jamie Michael Parnell) to lead a righteous group of commoners against the evil corporation controlling all the commodes—and, you know, find love along the way.
It’s not surprising that Kotis and Hollmann’s Urinetown debuted at the New York Fringe Festival; it’s heart is in alternative, intimate theater. What is a little remarkable is that it jumped from that 1999 start to Broadway in 2001, coincidentally debuting right after the terrorist attacks on September 11, and went on to be an enormous success. It won 2002 Tony Awards for best score, book and direction of a musical, and enjoyed a 965-performance run over three years. Those mainstream accolades are a testament to the flawless wit and layers of meaning nestled among all the pee jokes like a urinal cake in a bathroom trough.
Urinetown is at its best when poking fun at its genre and itself. Every single song is a spoof of some pretentious or corny classic. “Act One Finale” is a knockoff of Les Misérables, right down to the iconic choreography. “What is Urinetown?” is straight from Fiddler on the Roof. Other songs mimic West Side Story, Chicago, The Threepenny Opera, The Cradle Will Rock and so on.
Even if you don’t get every one of these references, the narrators—Little Sally and a police officer (Garrett Burreson)—will clue you in on the humor. Unlike other self-reverential narrators, these two are pitch-perfect. They openly despise the title of the musical, make fun of the foreshadowing and, in a subtler touch, introduce some of the more poignant aspects of the narrative. It’s hard to take the latter seriously considering the content, but if you’re looking for commentary—economic, political, environmental—Urinetown delivers that just as skillfully. At the very end, when Little Sally fears nobody is going to want to see this strange musical, the officer responds: “Why do you say that, Little Sally? Don’t you think people want to be told that their way of life is unsustainable?” The story moves on without a wink.
While the original material deserves credit, Campana, cast and crew do a remarkable job pulling the whole thing together. Musicals at UM are, unfortunately, generally unsteady experiences that only hold their balance for as long as the talent can hold a note—and historically that’s been a crapshoot. But silly material such as this easily masks the relatively few student shortcomings. The overall production is crisp and smooth, the music fantastic, and the three-tiered set by Mike Monsos provides a spare industrial setting. The unrivaled star of the show is Parnell as Bobby Strong, who possesses possibly the best voice of any student in recent years and keen comedic timing; he’s an intriguing cross between Buzz Lightyear and Chevy Chase. Kurt B. Duffner as the corporate mogul Caldwell B. Caldwell is just as good as he was in another local campy musical, last year’s Reefer Madness, and Gates’ Little Sally is charming throughout, especially when she sings the hilarious and heart-breaking, “Tell Her I Love Her.”
The potty premise may scare away some prudes. Get over it. Urinetown is more intelligent than it superficially seems, and yet it never takes itself seriously. If you’re expecting fun, it delivers. If you want a message with your madness, it’s got that too. Best of all, it has an intermission, because with all the bathroom talk you’ll find yourself relieved to know a spacious—and free—restroom awaits in the lobby.
Urinetown continues at UM’s Montana Theatre through Saturday, April 14, and again Tuesday, April 17, through Saturday, April 21. Nightly at 7:30 PM except on April 14, with matinees Saturday at 2 PM. $15/$12 students, seniors. Call 243-4581.