Satirical ‘Urinetown’ sparkles like new at American University

The Tony-winning musical sendup demands a lot of its cast, and the accomplished players at AU are more than up to the task.

Life in the Anthropocene (the current epoch in Earth’s history) has its limits. The more resources we humans use up, the less there are to sustain the planet. That’s the bold and unnerving lesson of Urinetown, the quirky, highly original musical that scored several Tonys back in 2002.

How do you entertain folks with such a fatalistic vision? Mark Hollmann (music and lyrics) and Greg Kotis (lyrics and book) managed to do just that with their mordant sendup of everything from corporate greed and corrupt politics to dangerous populism.

If anything, Urinetown should seem less funny today now that we’ve witnessed countless examples of environmental degradation and human folly. And yet, this clever, sharp-edged sendup of the musical genre itself still shines. In fact, it sparkles anew in a production mounted by American University’s Department of Performing Arts under the astute direction of Kathryn Chase Bryer.

The cast of ‘Urinetown’ at American University. Photo by Ethan Kauffman.

In an unnamed American city, atop a gleaming tower, the megalomaniacal Caldwell Cladwell (Dylan Toll) oversees the Urine Good Company, a privatized conglomerate of public toilets that everyone must pay to use. A small army of goons — Officer Lockstock (Jared Kirschenbaum), who also serves as the narrator, and Officer Barrel (Sam Lewis) and the grim-faced toilet warden Penelope Pennywise (Katie Zimmerman) — ensure strict compliance as the urban poor, wriggling in discomfort and counting their pennies, line up daily to use the fetid facilities.

With Senator Fipp (Evelyn Micacci) in his back pocket, the evil Cladwell determines to raise the usage fees. Anyone who defies him is carted off to the mythical, fear-inducing Urinetown. It’s a gulag — only worse. Only the child-savant Little Sally (Kate Lurie), who meanders through the production serving up gentle truths, sees both present and future clearly.

Tensions mount as Cladwell’s idealistic daughter Hope (Rebecca Morris) returns home from college to join the company. She falls in love with Pennywise’s sidekick Bobby Strong (Carson Young) and together they try to topple her father’s empire. Too late, the population learns that despite his despotism, Cladwell had preserved the town’s sparse water supply. Freedom to pee, and flush at will, has dire consequences.

Scenes from ‘Urinetown’ at American University. Photos by Ethan Kauffman.

Urinetown’s musical numbers riff on classic American genres, served up with a generous wink and a nod. You’ll hear echoes of Les Misérables and Threepenny Opera in “Urinetown” and “It’s a Privilege to Pee.” “Snuff that Girl” recalls West Side Story. Gospel music inflects “Run, Freedom, Run.” Hope and Bobby swoon in a classic love duet, “Follow Your Heart.” Even the outstanding choreography by Robert Bowen Smith pays homage to esteemed musicals. Cast members re-enact Fiddler on the Roof’s famous “Bottle Dance” as they execute energetic Russian kazoksky kicks while balancing rolls of toilet paper on their broad-brimmed hats. There’s also a wry reference to Surrealism. Watch Sally wave a bright flag signed by R. Mutt, the signature that artist Marcel Duchamp famously scrawled on a ready-made urinal that he exhibited to shocked audiences back in 1917.

Urinetown demands a lot of its players. They need to draw us into the satire while also harping on the drone strings of environmental and moral collapse. The talented players at AU are more than up to the task. As an ensemble, they gleefully inhabit both worlds, singing with gusto and dancing with both precision and joy. They are amply supported by the technical staff. Costume Designer Ashlynne Ludwig provides billowing, raggedy clothing that moves beautifully. Lighting Designer Max Doolittle enhances the production with moody colors and appropriately alarming beams. Music Director Deborah Jacobson backs up the accomplished cast with first-rate handling of the complicated score.

Urinetown alone won’t change our greedy consumption of Earth’s precious resources, but once in a while, it’s wryly provocative to take a step back and look at the looming apocalypse through the eyes of accomplished artists.

Running Time: Two hours with one 15-minute intermission.

Urinetown, The Musical plays through February 24, 2024, presented by the American University College of Arts performing at the Harold and Sylvia Greenberg Theatre – 4200 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, Washington, DC. For tickets ($10–$15, free for AU students), call (202) 885-3634 or order online.

Urinetown, The Musical
Music and Lyrics by Mark Hollmann
Book and Lyrics by Greg Kotis
Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer
Choreographed by Robert Bowen Smith
Music Direction by Deborah Jacobson


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