“Hello there—and welcome to Urinetown! Not the place of course, ‘The Musical’!” Thus we’re greeted at the start of this truly one-of-a-kind theatrical experience being re-offered by “The Coeurage Theatre Company’ at the historic “Lankershim Arts Center” in North Hollywood, California. Yes that’s really the title! For those unfamiliar with “Urinetown”—Broadway’s unlikely little bonanza, ‘you’re in’ for a pleasant eye-opener. Featuring the music of Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, with a book by Kotis, the Direction here by Kari Hayter with Musical Direction by Gregory Nabours and Choreography by Christopher Albrecht. Operating on a bold, trail-blazing “Pay What You Want” policy, “The Coeurage Theatre Company” is inviting patrons to base the cost of their admission on what they desire to pay. This in effect, enables each individual audience member to decide for themselves what their theatre experience is worth to them, while it’s also designed to eliminate cost as a factor in attending theatre. Initially opening this last November, the show played to enthusiastic response, before taking a break for the holidays; now it’s back–much to the big relief of So Cal audiences eager for a lovely, lively laugh riot of a show!
Naturally, with a name like “Urinetown” you know it’s going to dispatch an abundance of first-rate satire, and Hollmann and Kotis’ genuinely witty lyrics are packed with lots of razor-sharp quips, one-liners and double entendres—often one right on top of another. A brilliant send-up of all those “Populist” musicals of the 1930’s like “Three Penny Opera” or “The Cradle Will Fall”, even the brief overture smacks of “Kurt Weill”! Still, although the subject matter may appear to be a bit on the ‘raw’ side, it is never rude or crude. Nominated for ten 2002 Tony Awards, and winning three, for “Best Book”, “Best Score”, and “Best Direction of a Musical”, this water-shed musical tale of love, greed, governmental ‘over-reach’, corporate malfeasance, and revolution, opens we’re told, “sometime after the ‘stink years’, which (we’re also informed) were “the first years when the water tables began to fall”, plunging society into near-collapse. In fact, after 20-years of drought, private toilets are unthinkable and things have gotten so bad, that “everyone has to use public bathrooms in order to take care of their ‘private business’, or as “Penelope Pennywise”—the hard-hearted proprietress of the dingy “Public Amenity #9” exhorts during the opening: “Water’s worth its weight in gold these days—no more bathrooms like in olden days; you come here and pay the fee—for the ‘privilege’ to pee!” To make matters worse, her facility is the filthiest public urinal in town, and only the very poorest—those who can afford no other such ‘luxury’ (–and for many, not even this one,) are forced to use it. Said ‘public utilities’ are overseen by a tyrannical corporation called “Urine Good Company” (or the “U.G.C.” for short) under the control of its piss-drunk-with-power Chief Executive and monumental whiz–at business, “Caldwell B. Cladwell”. To break the “Public Health Act” (as they call it) is an exiling offense, where violators are sent off to the euphemistic locale of the title. However, despite (or maybe ‘because of ’) the constant pressure and discomfort of the destitute masses, a hero among them arises in the person of young “Bobby Strong”–former assistant to Ms. Pennywise, who, with the love of Cladwell’s daughter “Hope” (once her own awareness has been elevated,) leads his fellow citizens in rebellion against the U.G.C.
Staged at “The Lankershim Arts Center’s” theater upstairs, Director Hayter sets a fast-pace and fun stride something akin to a theatrical rollercoaster ride that’s bound to leave you breathless and howling for more. She’s also favored a more ‘contemporary’ ‘look’ to the production while remaining true to the show’s classic satiric roots. There is a definite ‘style’ at play here—everything is melodramatically serious or precise, often to the point of near-absurdity; this requires the players to express their actions with blistering earnestness while always being cautious to never ‘over-play’ them. Then again, just when you think you’ve gotten a taste of some deeper emotion like sincerity or solemnity, you can bet that it’s just to disarm or misdirect you for much bigger, more irreverent laughs and hijinks to soon follow. Thrillingly, the by-product isn’t simply comedy gold—it’s comedy PLATINUM! Moreover, Albrecht’s clever choreography which is infused into the proceedings is itself overflowing with magnificent surprises, often occurring in the most unexpected or unconventional places. Bestowing some shrewd homages to other noteworthy musicals, like “Chicago”, “A Chorus Line”, “Les Miserables” and “Fiddler On The Roof” (among numerous others) as a whole, it serves as the production’s crowning glory. In “Mr. Cladwell”, a gang of office sycophants form a snazzy kick-line (—complete with Gold Lame Top hats, yet–) all in praise of their imperious leader; this is followed by another nifty inter-office interlude during Cladwell’s melodic oration, “Don’t Be The Bunny”, as a cluster of dancers do—what else? “The Bunny Hop”! A bona fide first act high-light, the number also includes some shadow puppets to get the big boss man’s pitiless point across. There’s also “Snuff the Girl”, a plot number during which the rabble, now hold up in some secret hideout with Hope as their hostage, deliberate what to do with her, before breaking into a jazzy jubilation incorporating a few knowing winks and nods toward “West Side Story”, led by Nicole Garcia as a very ‘enceinte’ “Little Becky Two Shoes” and Danny Bernardo as “Hot Blades Harry”.
Indeed it’s largely the flexible and seemingly tireless work of the ensemble that provides the high-octane jet-fuel that makes the production really fly—and they hit all the right (and most humorous) notes, investing added drama and vivid harmonic ‘punctuation’ to many, if not, most, of the numbers. Beginning with the portentously driving exposition of “This Is Urinetown”, they then collectively segue into the ‘Sturm-and-Drang’ “woe is me” backing of “It’s A Privilege To Pee”. Subsequently, as the story reaches its crucial, climactic act-break when “Cladwell” calls in ‘the law’ (all two of them) to put a damper on Bobby’s “revolutionary uprising”, things swell into a grand frenetic sequence that’s reminiscent of “Les Miz’s” iconic “One Day More” (were it led by “The Three Stooges” or the guys from “Monty Python”.) After intermission, the cast team together once more for their 11 O’clock anthem of defiance, “We’re Not Sorry”, followed by the pseudo-reverential, “I See A River”, which concludes the show.
As our hero, “Bobby Strong”—the “Assistant Custodian of “Amenity #9” turned bargain-basement “Jean Val Jean”, Daniel Bellusci boasts an alluring street-wise, rough-around-the-edges charm that’s just right for a role like this. A gifted singer as well, he particularly shines with “Look At The Sky”, as “Bobby’s” dream of better things for the people begins to take shape (with the crowd taking up protest signs scrawled with phrases like “Don’t Shush My Flush”, “Let My Pee-ple Go!” and “Don’t H8—Urinate”.) Then, he helps introduce Act Two in dazzling style with his tongue-twisting declaration during “What Is Urinetown”; but his best moments arguably occur when he leads “Run Freedom, Run”—a rousing gospel-tinged group chanson that culminates with him literally ‘directing’ his chorus of supporters. Meanwhile, displaying great energy and vivacity, Ashley Kane is our bright-eyed and bubbly heroine “Hope Cladwell”. In her hands, “Hope” is perky and idealistic enough, but refreshingly too, Kane incorporates just the right touch of innocence while never coming off as vacuous. She also has a delectable soprano voice which she puts into the first-class service of “Follow Your Heart”—a love duet with Bellusci, as she suggests that nature is calling him (–to follow his heart, that is!) Together, they make this, could otherwise come off as silly of cloying, rise to the level of a top-notch crowd-pleaser and indisputable mood-raiser.
Commandeering the stage as our narrator, is Ted Barton as “Officer Lockstock”. An aptly named ‘teddy-bear’ of a man, don’t let that unctuous grin fool you. Smiles like that often contain sharp teeth and such is the essence of “Officer Lockstock”! Furnishing spectators with all the necessary background info. of the story about to be told, he launches the show with a quick prologue, “Too Much Exposition”. Later he reveals his way around Kotis and Hollmann’s catchy lyrics with “Cop Song” along with Brian O’Sullivan (who shares the role for this part of the run with Tyler Vaughn) as fellow officer “Barrel”. A nifty “rap’ cadence, here it’s embellished with some nice old-fashioned vaudevillian touches. Barton is also responsible for his portion of the hilarity throughout, most notably as the first act draws to an end, in a flurry of slap-stick inspired confusion—all performed in slow-motion, causing “Lockstock” to pointedly address the situation in one of his many ‘asides’ to the audience: “As you can see, the rebel poor are making their getaway…while the rest of us have been thrown into confusion and we don’t get to catch them because…we’re all moving so damn slowly!” Joining him for much of the exposition is Nicole Monet as “Little Sally”–a wee squirt of a girl, who mines big laughs by often dryly commenting on the goings-on. Cute-as-a-button in pig-tails and grubby coveralls, Monet primarily gets to show-off her own laudable singing talents in Act Two, but when she does, it’s sure worth the wait. Likewise, her character is much of the ‘moral voice’ of the show, such as in her wistful reprise of the second act opener, “What Is Urinetown?” as she ponders: “Urinetown is here! It’s the “town” wherever people learn to live in fear. So look around, you’ve finally found the place you asked about–for ‘Urinetown’ is your town, if you’re hopeless, down and out!” Later, Monet scores again with the equally pensive “Tell Her I Love Her”, delivering a valiant message to Hope from Bobby once her father has taken him into custody. Furthermore, Kim Reed is in excellent voice and fine comedic fettle as “Penelope Pennywise” (“That’s MS. Pennywise to you!” she growls) the operator of “Amenity #9”—if you gotta go, you gotta through her! She triumphs early on with “Privilege To Be Pee”(— one of the most wantonly wonderful “Villain Songs” presented in any recent musical) in which she spells out–in no uncertain terms, just who the poor, browbeaten populace desperate or unlucky enough to need the use of her facilities, are up against. She also adds her considerable vocal chops to “Look At The Sky” giving it that extra dose of over-the-top histrionics which translate into even more camp-lunacy.
Gary Lamb is also spot-on as the embodiment of avarice and rapacity as “Caldwell B. Cladwell”. Smooth, cunning, and with a barely-disguised ego, Lamb masterfully fills the shoes of your standard fast-talking, four-flushing, “used-car salesman” of an executive, who’s not in the least above dealing from the bottom of the deck to get his desired outcome. He too, has a dynamite pair of numbers with which to exhibit his sonant abilities—first, with Cladwell’s ode to himself, appropriately titled, “Mr. Cladwell”: “I took this town that formerly stank; I took this town and made it smell swank;” he carols forth “I made flushing mean ‘flush at the bank! I’m the man with the plan and so whom should you thank?!” Slightly thereafter he strikes gold again with “Don’t Be the Bunny”– still another superb “Villain” song, wherein we learn just how ruthless a character our boy Cladwell is. (Then again, as he reminds us, “Worldwide ecological devastation has a way of changing man”.) Adding some flourish to his solo verses of “Mr. Cladwell”, admirable support is also supplied by Jamie Pierce as Cladwell’s Number One Assistant “Mr. McQueen”, while the perpetually smiling Shakil Azizi paints an impeccable portrait of the slickest, greasiest, pocket-lining politician with “Hands as dirty as a child after sand-box time”, as “Senator Fipp”.
The technical elements similarly combine to make their impressive mark, predominantly by not calling attention to themselves, thus putting the performers and their work “front and center”. Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino and Associate Scenic Designer Hannah Welter’s stark uber-urban utilitarian sets splayed with graffiti here and there, rendering an auspicious and fitting backdrop for the mirth, merriment and mockery to play out against, which actually makes the intimate auditorium at “The Lankershim Arts Center” feel like its scores bigger! (There’s even a TV monitor on the side of the stage which sets the various scenes and locales.) Emily Brown-Kucera’s costume designs, best described as “Vagabond Vogue” also add to the illusion of shabby ‘every-day’ hopelessness. Both are complimented by Brandon Baruch’s thoroughly innovative lighting design which employs ordinary mechanic’s clamp-lights with extraordinary success. He also gets terrific results from frequent ‘up-lighting’ effects to conjure that perfect, ‘sinister’ or ‘conspiratorial’ mood when so required. Not to be overlooked either is the stalwart contribution made by Peter Shannon, who is on-stage continually at the side right keyboard, as the show’s accompanist.
They’re all here—from the squalor and noise, the hopes and the joys, to the laughter and gladness; so don’t ‘be the bunny’ (especially a dumb one!) If you need to relieve yourself of some stresses of the day (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?) ‘follow your heart” and GO—here, where there’s laughs aplenty! Having re-opened on Friday, January 6th “Urinetown: The Musical” will run through February 25th, 2017 at the “Lankershim Arts Center” located at: 5108 Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood, CA. Showtimes are Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM. Tickets can be reserved on-line by visiting: www.coeurage.org/urinetown or via phone by calling (323) 944-2165.
Production Photos by Nardeep Khurmi, Courtesy of Ken Werther at Ken Werther Publicity (www.kenwerther.com) and “The Coeurage Theatre Company”; Special Thanks to Ken Werther, Kari Hayter, Christopher Albrecht, Gregory Nabours And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Coeurage Theater Company’s” 2017 Production Of “Urinetown: The Musical” For Making This Story Possible.