‘Urinetown’ plunges local artists into apocalyptic bathroom humor
Imagine living in circumstances so desperate that you spend all your waking hours scrounging enough coins to gain admission to a privately operated public toilet. That’s life for the fictional denizens of the musical “Urinetown,” playing through March 1 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park.
In an era of perpetual water shortages, a ragtag collection of misfits and petty criminals live by their wits in the confines of the poorest part of an unnamed city. They are kept in their place by two policemen, Officer Lockstock (David L. Yen) and Officer Barrel (Peter T. Downey), working at the behest of the Urine Good Company (UGC), corporate overlord of all things water-and-waste related. At UGC’s helm is the despicable, avaricious chief executive Caldwell B. Cladwell (Tim Setzer), who has an office full of sycophants, and the police on his payroll.
Unlike the junkyard king in “Born Yesterday,” Cladwell doesn’t need to buy a national-level legislator, because he already owns one: Senator Fipp (Michael Arbitter), who stands around the UGC office, wringing his hands and spouting reassurances that UGC’s push for an increased toilet admission fee will win congressional approval. And, of course, Cladwell has a beautiful daughter, Hope (Julianne Thompson Bretan), a recent graduate of the world’s most expensive university. She’s ready to take her rightful place in her father’s organization. From the corporate perspective, her one character flaw is that she still has a soul.
Whether she can hang onto it is one of the show’s subplots.
An intentionally self-aware piece of musical theater -“meta-theater” as it’s sometimes called -“Urinetown” announces itself and its intentions directly to the audience repeatedly through Officer Lockstock, serving as the show’s narrator. The reference to “Born Yesterday” is clear, and as noted by director Jay Manley in the program, so are the show’s many references to other musicals. Astute viewers will see reflections of shows as diverse as “Les Miserables,” “The Threepenny Opera,” “Oliver,” “A Christmas Carol,” and “West Side Story,” plus references to real-life occurrences such as the 1974 kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst.
Pushed to the point of bursting - peeing is “a privilege, not a right” according to UGC - the restroom-deprived poor can take only so much. Rebellion is their obvious recourse.
And what a glorious rebellion it is, on a starkly spectacular set by Elizabeth Bazzano and Eddy Hansen, one that simultaneously evokes the hopelessness of dirty streets, an insurmountable prison wall, and corporate headquarters supremely well-insulated from the outside world. Hansen’s sometimes grim lighting and projections by Chris Schloemp add significantly to the oppressive atmosphere. Led by charismatic rebel Bobby Strong (Joshua Bailey), the poor take desperate measures in a vainglorious attempt to win recognition of their basic human dignity - all performed to incredibly cheery upbeat music by an ace five-member orchestra directed by Petaluma’s Lucas Sherman.
Anna L. Joham appears in the pivotal role of Penelope Pennywise, Cladwell’s enforcer-on-the-street. With powerful singing voices and confident demeanor, Bailey and Bretan are perfectly cast as the rebel leader and his hostage, respectively. Yen is especially strong. Tim Setzer is deliciously evil as Caldwell, and Karen Pinomaki is a hyperactive wonder as Josephine Strong, Bobby’s ever-supportive mother. Denise Elia-Yen is a delight as Little Sally, a character who despite having both feet in the rebel camp still has a warm relationship with Officer Lockstock.
Not every everything is night-and-day in “Urinetown.”
The large cast of Spreckels Theatre Company regulars is generally beyond reproach. The ensemble - which includes several Petaluma actors including Ron Lam, Lorenzo Alviso, David Casper and Anderson Templeton - boasts some obvious standouts, such as ScharyPearl Fugitt in dual roles as street urchin Soupy Sue and the very proper secretary to Mr. Cladwell. Her infectious exuberance makes her tremendous fun to watch.
This “Urinetown” is an enjoyable professional production, another exemplary effort by a company with an impressive track record on both large and small stages. Its happy-tunes music at odds with its gallows-humor take on the very real state of diminishing resources, “Urinetown” is a cautionary tale for today. The boss in the high tower may never understand that abundance is meaningless without being shared. Until he does, we’ll all live in Urinetown.