The Dystopian Fable About Paying to Pee We Need Right Now
Ashley Kane, center, with members of the ensemble in Urinetown
Photo by Nardeep Khurmi
When Urinetown: The Musical played in Los Angeles in 2004, it registered as a dystopian fable — a cautionary tale about what could happen in a distant future. Twelve and a half years later, as Trump and the alt-right usurp power at the highest levels of government, the show’s grim vision of boundless greed and class oppression appears real and imminent.
The brainchild of Mark Hollmann (music and lyrics) and Greg Kotis (book and lyrics), Urinetown was first produced at New York City’s Fringe Festival in 1999, later moving to Broadway, where it garnered Tonys for best score, book and direction of a musical.
Its setting is a mythologic time and place, where a disastrous drought has been ongoing for 20 years, and the distinguishing fact of life for most folks is that they must pay to pee. The public ”amenities” — the only bathrooms available — are controlled by Urine Good Company, a corporation headed by a ruthless tycoon, Caldwell B. Cladwell (Gary Lamb), who mandates fees beyond the means of an impoverished citizenry. But pay they must, under threat of exile to a hellish place called Urinetown, from which no unfortunate man or woman has ever been known to return.
One such citizen is Old Man Strong (Danny Bernardo), who’s hauled away after publicly urinating in a moment of defiant desperation. Shortly thereafter fees are ”adjusted” upward, and a manic populace unites around the old man’s son, Bobby (Daniel Bellusci), an honest, noble-hearted hero smitten with Cladwell’s equally wide-eyed, naive daughter, Hope (Ashley Kane). The pair met by chance one evening as Hope, unaware of her dad’s perfidious reputation, fearlessly strolled through the city streets.
A lesser work would have this captivating pair of lovers — and Bellusci and Kane are just that — living happily ever after, but as Officer Lockstock (Ted Barton), the show’s narrator, snarkily explains to one of the town’s pluckiest denizens, Little Sally (Nicole Monet), “This is not a happy musical.” That’s because for all its clever lyrics, catchy rhythms and comic moments, Urinetown’s graphic tale is grounded in a harrowing truth.
One of the trickiest things for an actor to do well is to lend reality to an implausible or outrageous scenario or a cartoonish character. That’s accomplished in spades by just about everyone in this Coeurage Theatre Company production under Kari Hayter’s adept and disciplined direction. It’s commendable ensemble work: lively and amusing on the one hand, disturbingly prescient on the other. The production isn't elaborate — and that's how it should be. Christopher M. Albrecht's upbeat choreography and the costumes and props by Emily Brown-Kucera amplify the spectacle.
GO! The Historic Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; through Feb. 25. (323) 944-2165, coeurage.org/urinetown.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Los Angeles.