It’s the oldest story, the masses are oppressed, faces, clothes, and bladders are distressed. Where could such a thing happen? Why The Arts Collective at Howard Community College’s presentation of Urinetown: The Musical of course! What is Urinetown, you ask? Why it might be a nice place to live with golden frothy canals like Venice, or it might be a metaphor for scheming corporation’s dark cover-up plan, or in this case it’s the Tony Award-winning satire with shiny happy music and crackpot characters that will dance their way into your minds and drive you absolutely crazy. In a town not unlike your own, in a time not too far from now, the water has run out and water consumption is regulated by a power-hungry money-grubbing corporation that keeps the pee off the streets and the water in the ground. It becomes a privilege to pee, where every individual has to pay a fee to use a public amenity or else get shipped off to Urinetown.
Costume Designer Jessica Welch ensures that the ensemble appears like the derelict impoverished that they are meant to be – with tattered rags for costumes, pants and torn shirts so filthy that you can almost smell the stink wafting from them. Coupled with Set and Prop Designer Ryan Michael Haase, Welch’s efforts ensure a rundown feeling for this show. Haase makes the sewer pipes look thoroughly nasty, sludge oozing around the lips, rust eating through the metal. Together this team creates the perfect crumbling atmosphere – mirroring the crumbling sustainability of society.
Director and Choreographer Jenny Male takes an impressive approach to this hysterical dark comedy, incorporating the theatre’s house as a part of the play space. The officers roam through the seating before the show and as intermission winds down to a close, and the characters make quick entrances and crafty exits through the sloped aisles of the audience. Male’s creative use of the stage is unparalleled in her use of the centralized turntable. Employing this device selectively, Male creates astonishing visual scenes – often giving the appearance of lots of fluid movement when the actors aren’t moving at all. This happens during the march to revolution during “Act I Finale,” and during “Cop Song.”
As a Choreographer, Male presents very simplistic dance routines. They are extremely well executed with perfect synchronization. The ensemble, dressed as Urine Good Company workers, form a jazz-enthused kick line to complete the song “Mr. Cladwell” complete with pop-up top hats. This number is laced with fancy showmanship and everyone has a big smile as they complete their high kicks. Male makes a tremendous effort to ensure that the “Cop Song” has a fierce stomping beat with an impeccable rhythm. And there are great ensemble numbers that really get that swinging feeling, with high levels of energy behind the dance, like “Snuff That Girl.”
But the thing that really completes this musical is the over-the-top melodramatic acting, which is crafted into the script. Male drags up some of the best quirky actors in the area to bring a unique touch to this show. The first such interesting twist is that she casts Senator Fipp (Amy Chase Martin) as an actual woman. The script states the senator to be a male but alludes to the fact that he may have had a sex change. Casting Martin in this role creates a whole new sexual dynamic between her and Cladwell (Ed Higgins). Martin exudes her sleazy feminine wiles and grows catty and jealous when other women, even Cladwell’s daughter, show up in his office.
Cladwell, played by Higgins, is a force to be reckoned with. Upon first appearing on the stage he seems like a rather odd sod, but as the show progresses so does Higgins’s dark portrayal. In “Mr. Cladwell” Higgins lets the character’s narcissistic side shine through; his hammy smiles that pander to the audience combined with his cheeky sarcastic attempts at modesty create an obnoxious self-obsessed man in this character. Higgins devolves into a dark and gruesome character by the end of Act I. In his face off with Bobby during “Act I Finale” the tension between them is palpable as Higgins rages and becomes a craven toilet maven, ferocious and defensive.
To foil such a diabolical scheming man you’d need a hero. And such a hero is found in the youthful Bobby Strong (Dustin Merrell). The hero of the story, Merrell has a powerful voice that faces off with the best of them, and his expressions are often pricelessly hilarious. When he leads the ensemble in a full-blown gospel style tent rival during “Run, Freedom, Run” he makes true believers out of his rabble-rousing poor, with conviction in his voice and confidence in his stance, it is clear in this song he has his mojo working. His belly is ablaze with fiery fight when he stands off against the officers and later against Higgins in that explosive climax of Act I’s ending. Merrell’s voice is powerful but it is also harmonious, melodious and sweet when singing with love interest Hope Cladwell (Katie Chase Martin). Their melodramatic interactions are beyond comical and when their voices intertwine for “Follow Your Heart” the zany love ballad takes flight on the wings of their duet harmony, showcasing wonderment and hysterical lyrical dissonance at the same time.
Katie Chase Martin, as Hope, is a chipper bubble head that has to be seen to be believed. She suits the airy nature of the character with her drifting dreamy-eyed gazes and her silly sayings laced with honest belief as she says them. She’s easily unsettled by everyone’s sexual advances toward her, which adds a layer of comic depth to her character, and she presents the audience with a distinctive modern pop sound in her vocals during the opening of “I See A River,” a sound not to be missed.
But the show isn’t carried on just hope and dreams, or Hope and Bobby, alone. Hot Blades Harry (Steve Backus) takes all the attention when he thunders through “Snuff That Girl.” Backus’s maniacal expressions definitely give off the impression of insanity, while his voice oozes with jazzy sleaze. He lets his body express his edgy temper as spins around during this number, the rhythm of the number possessing his body. He’s up against stiff completion with Soupy Sue (Kelsey Painter) who grabs everyone’s eyes in precisely the right way. Every moment the attention should be focused on the ensemble she ensures that all eyes are on her. Painter’s over-the-top physical gestures and permanent scowl make her an irresistible performer in this ensemble and her performance is uproarious.
Of course what would a good story be without a narrator? And this show has two. Officer Lockstock (Cory Jones) and Little Sally (Keri Eastridge) take turns slipping out of the on-stage action to have asides with the audience, often together in the form of cute questions. Jones has a dark and ominous singing voice that foreshadows to lots of dreary things. He uses this sound during the opening number as well as “What Is Urinetown” and “Cop Song.” His comic delivery of lines, often exchanged with Eastridge, is the epitome of perfection. Jones lives up to his bumbling antics with partner Officer Barrel (Gavin Shown) and the pair creates quite a rhythmic spoken rap during “Cop Song.”
Keri Eastridge is the most adorable of them all. She wanders through the audience with her teddy bear the size of her torso and poses fun questions for a toddler, in that squeaky nasally voice. You get to hear her voice ring true in “What is Urinetown.” Her pairings with Jones make for quite the night at the theater.
So gather up your pennies, because the new fee hikes for the toilets are going into effect, and head down to the The Arts Collective at HCC’s production of Urinetown: The Musical. It’s a real pisser of a show!
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes. with one intermission.
Urinetown: The Musical plays through Sunday May 13, 2012 at The Arts Collective at HCC in The Horowitz Center’s Smith Theatre at Howard Community College – 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (443) 518-1500, or purchase them online.