“Better hope your pennies add up to the fee–We can’t have you peeing for free; If you do, we’ll catch you! We-we never fail–and we never bother with jail!” Thus we’re apprised at the start of “Urinetown”–the thoroughly unique and thoroughly wacky 2002 Tony-Award winning musical (for “Best Original Score”, “Best Book Of A Musical” and “Best Direction Of A Musical”,) featuring music and lyrics by Mark Hollmann and a book by Greg Kotis (who also co-wrote the lyrics.) The latest comic ‘relief’ currently being offered at “The Long Beach Playhouse” in Long Beach California, this rib-tickling new production is Directed by Rovin Jay with Choreography by Sonia Randall and Musical Direction by Stephen Olear. With this, their latest, the bunch over at “The Long Beach Playhouse” have seen to it that their audiences will be ‘privy’ to the best comedy in town (and it’s a promise they commodiously deliver on!)
A musical farce that practically redefines the terms ‘Hilarious’ and ‘Outrageous’, “Urinetown” lampoons subjects like runaway capitalism, bureaucracy, corporate mismanagement, and in many ways, musical extravaganzas themselves! This rollickingly irreverent “comedic romp” even reinvigorates the notion of what a musical could be with wildly wicked wit and unbridled laughs! Yet what may have started out as outlandish no-holds-barred social satire—groundbreaking when the show first opened–has since taken on a strange new relevancy and reverberation in light of our recent Covid-19 lockdowns where basic rights were regularly trampled upon in the name of the greater social good, as well as what some Californians would contend are the comparably heavy-handed measures imposed by the state and local governments to help combat the on-going state-wide drought. Set in a mythical place and time not unlike the Midwest around the time of the infamous “Dust Bowl” of the 1930’s, here we learn that a 20-year drought has prompted a terrible water shortage. Things have gotten so bad in fact, that the government has enforced a ban on private toilets altogether. “Suffice it to say that in ‘Urinetown’ (the musical) everyone has to use public bathrooms in order to take care of their private ‘business’—that’s the central conceit…” Officer Lockstock” the man in charge of enforcing such draconian laws informs us at the show’s opening; “Later on you’ll learn that these public bathrooms are controlled by a private company. They keep admission high generally, so if you’re down on your luck you have to come to a place like this—one of the poorest, filthiest urinals in town.” Joined by a waifish young ragamuffin called “Little Sally”, she and “Lockstock”, serve as the show’s narrators, supplying needed exposition while also keeping a running commentary on all of the goings-on. (“I may be a cop but I’m also the narrator,” the ‘Officer’ proclaims smugly at one point; “No one can touch me—not if they want the show to end.”)
With the people suffering so, you can bet it’s only a matter of time before a would-be “Champion of the people” named “Bobby Strong” (who is, as fate would have it, an “Assistant Custodian” at one of the more squalid ‘facilities’,) decides that he’s had enough and incites a revolution to lead all the patrons to flush the corruption away and let freedom flow! Putting a damper on his ambitions though, is “Miss Penelope Pennywise”—a hard-hearted spinster, who manages the exceedingly grimy “Amenity #9” where he works. Complicating things even further is how “Bobby” meets and falls in love with “Hope Cladwell”, a beautiful young idealist who happens to be the daughter of “Caldwell B. Cladwell”—the crooked industrialist (and all-around nasty guy) that owns (and mismanages) all of the ‘amenities’, called ‘Urine Good Company” (Or “U.G.B. for short) charging whatever skyrocketing fees that suit his vain and arrogant whims. Be forewarned though, by the characters’ own admissions, this is a satirical musical—not necessarily a ‘happy’ one: “I don’t think too many people are going to come to see this musical, Officer Lockstock” ‘Little Sally’ pouts in the epilogue, obviously disappointed by the turn of events, to which he replies, “Why do you say that? Don’t you think people want to be told that their way of life is unsustainable?”
“The Long Beach Playhouse’s” upstairs “Studio Theater” where the show is staged, is a pleasantly intimate venue and an impeccable fit for a show of “Urinetown’s” size. Spotlighting numerous nods to blockbuster hit shows like “Les Misérables”, “Three-Penny Opera” and “Fiddler On The Roof” among others, the music runs a gamut of genres from Big Band, Gospel (and in “Officer Lockstock’s” case,) even a nifty Rap number. Another exceptional aspect to the score is in how it affords the cast so many occasions to come together in some outstanding chorale endeavors. As a combined entity, the company opens the show with “This Is Urinetown”, and shortly following, there’s also some gratifying group harmony and ‘round’ singing to be heard in Ms. Pennywise’s “Privilege To Pee”. Subsequently, their involvement in “Mr. Cladwell” (the number that introduces the evil capitalist and our key ‘baddie’) is another exhilarating shared effort, sung in praise of this sleezy, narcistic “Captain Of Industry”. Noteworthy too is the superb communal backing of “Look At The Sky” and “Don’t Be The Bunny” before leading into the “big” Act One Finale (—called what else? “The Act One Finale”!) Another full-cast on-target ‘bulls-eye’, this one starts with “Bobby’s” solo verses as he attempts to ‘sell’ the assembled throng into rebelling against the “U.G.B.” resulting in an all-out ‘pee-for-all’ as they commandeer the toilets leading to a dynamic crescendo once the furious crowd joins in. It’s a potent end to the earlier half, (not to mention how they all display some uproarious “picket signs” extolling “Wee The Pee-ple”, “The Right To Wipe” and “Yes, Wee Can”.) Along with being a dead-on spoof of “Les Misérables”–complete with a sizable waving “French” flag–this is also easily the most off-the-wall number in the entire show (–and that’s saying something!)
Director Jay directs with a perceptive flair for the fanciful and the funny, and the production benefits immensely for it–and does he ever have a plethora of hysterical (or perhaps that should that be ‘piss-terical’) material to work with! Plenty of distinct—even quirky moments are filled to the brim with slapstick tomfoolery and side-splitting sight gags, with the end result being something akin to “I Love Lucy” or “The Three Stooges” were they performed at a Joan Baez or Bob Dylan concert.
Jay also knows that often the biggest laughs are born from the subtlest or simplest inducements: One prime example entails a running gag concerning “Bobby’s” dad which leaves the audience in stitches every time it occurs. Every bit as responsible for the show’s success is Ms. Randall who proves herself time and again to be a shrewd and insightful choreographer—one whose dance achievements always strike just the right comedic chord, even escalating some of the more jocular elements (of which there are many!) Although her Choreography is parceled out in smaller portions, each segment is both effective and potent—often referencing other classic hit musicals, while serving as comic or kinetic ‘punctuation’ to the more expansive ‘terpsichorean’ outings. For “Mr. Cladwell” she intermingles some sharp and dexterous moves–even culminating with a vivacious ‘Kickline’ by the number’s ride-out. Then toward the close of “Officer Lockstock” and “Officer Barrel’s” duet, “Cop Song”, they are joined by the rest of their ‘police force” for a crafty little nod to “Sweet Charity” once a line of police tape is stretched across the stage (see the show and you’ll get it!) Soon thereafter, she has the staff of the “U.G.B.” engage in a lively “Bunny Hop” at the height of “Don’t Be The Bunny” as they celebrate the joy of being merciless to the people who rely on the service they supposedly administer. After the break, her ingenuity continues with the Act Two opener, “What Is Urinetown?” which Ms. Randall has constructed as another mischievous ‘homage’—this time to “Fiddler On The Roof” with a phrase of boisterously performed mock “Russian” steps, while during “Snuff That Girl” she’s created a brilliant riff on “West Side Story” (most notably the big “Cool” number) wherein the mob snap their fingers and jump about in rhythm. (Not only is it a very clever inclusion, it’s also well carried out by her dancers.) Still another commendable multi-singer interlude is the climactic 11 O’Clock rouser, “We’re Not Sorry”. Initiated innocently enough by “Little Sally”, she’s quickly joined by the ensemble for a jivy jitterbug with loads of high kicks and fancy stepping.
A crucial figure in all of the action (and the story’s intrepid hero) is Zachary Balagot as “Bobby Strong”—a low-level “Custodian” (a.k.a “Janitor”) at “Amenity #9”. Graced with a powerful singing talent, he validates this straight away with “Look At The Sky”—sending his verses resounding all the way through to the back row. Although “Bobby” starts out benign enough—just wait! Once he’s had enough this courageous (or fool-hardy) lad tries to act valiantly by commandeering the local amenity where he works before announcing to all those lined up: “Relieve yourselves in happiness!” (–this at the close of Act One.) With the opening of Act Two, this new attitude intensifies many of his ensuing, ‘angrier’ verses: “What is Urinetown? Urinetown’s a lie! A means to keep the poor in check until the day they die; I did not shirk their dirty work, but things are different now–We’ll fight for right with all our might until we win somehow!” Afterwards, Balagot absolutely flourishes leading “Run Freedom Run” a gospel-tinged roof-raiser, whereupon he leads the chorus (and “Hope” among them) even ‘conducting’ them all as a choir into some striking A Capela verses, while also mining some big, boisterous belly laughs in the process. When one of his fellow insurrectionists admits to being scared, before launching into the second verse he confidently retorts: “As well you should be! Freedom is scary–it’s a blast of cool wind that burns your face to wake ya up!” (Count this a definite post-intermission high point.) Fadeke Oparinde also turns in a vastly enjoyable performance as Cladwell’s terminally cheery daughter, “Hope Cladwell”. She is the calmer, unaffected–and more relatable–center in a show overflowing with sheer nuttiness, and her expert performance marvelously reflects this. Ms. Oparinde bestows a refreshingly natural characterization—optimistic—not naive or, (God forbid,) scatterbrained, (as “Hope” has often been portrayed in other productions.) As such, she gives us a soothing voice of reason in a sea of absurdity: “I let someone down I love dearly. I feel really bad about it,’ Bobby tells her early on; “Well, maybe that’s nature’s way of telling you that now’s the time to lift someone up,” she replies. Vocally, she has a luminous singing talent that, frankly, makes us wish she had more of a chance to show-off. That said, this makes those times she is given all the more treasured. “Hope’s” duet with “Bobby”, “Follow Your Heart” is an A-Plus intermezzo with just the right blend of ditzy lightheadedness mixed in with the romantic lightheartedness (Oh, it’s sweet and lyrical enough, however they seem to take the idea of being ‘heart-to-heart’ a little too literally, singing more about the beating four-chamber organ than the more poetic object that Cupid supposedly shoots arrows into.) Either way, their voices are well matched, making this one a bona-fide First Act highlight. Toward the show’s conclusion, her sincerely-worth-waiting-for moment comes with “I See A River” which eventually swells into an equally rousing collectively-sung enterprise—but not before she astounds us with some sterling money-notes and breath-taking refrains.
Amanda Webb too, demonstrates perfect comic timing and a gift for the overall ‘style’ of this musical as the Manager of “Amenity #9” and “Bobby’s” boss, “Miss Penelope Pennywise”. Ms. Webb likewise brings a wonderful sense of melodrama to her already powerful ‘Broadway Belt’ voice that she puts to excellent use throughout the proceedings.
Her preliminary salvo, “A Privilege To Pee” isn’t simply one more superlative way to launch the show after the big opening, it’s one of the better “Villain” songs to be heard in a Broadway show in the last twenty years (at least!) It also contains some of the wittiest lyrics in the piece: “So you think you’ve got some kind of right?! You think you’ll come in here and go for free?” she crows; “The only thing you’ll get is NO for free! I’m a business gal you see, I sell the privilege to pee!” In the second act, her part in the frenetic “Why Did I Listen To That Man?!” (as “Miss Pennywise” begins to re-think her devotion to “Cladwell” over the years,) literally strikes all the finest notes—vocally and emotionally. Opposite him, both hit pay-dirt again with “I’m Not Sorry” as she croons: “Remember when our nights were starry? I’m not sorry—you’re not sorry–just unsound!” “Miss Pennywise” may be pretty abhorrent, but the out-and-out despicable ‘Antagonist/Antihero’ of our tale is “Caldwell B. Cladwell”–the President of the “U.C.B.” Played to menacing perfection by Eric Schiffer, his primary vocal approach is well suited for the more ‘expositionary” lyrics he is charged with. Indeed, he turns out to be particularly adept with the sung-spoken tone of most of “Cladwell’s” numbers. Schiffer shines leading “Don’t Be The Bunny” (—also one of the very best “Villain” songs in recent memory) as he, backed by his cadre of “yes” men and women, welcomes his daughter “Hope” into the company. There they ‘instruct’ her in the ruthless ways of the world and how to not be a victim of it.
Another genuine presence to be reckoned with is Derek Rubiano as “Officer Lockstock”– our unctuous narrator who also seethes with deviousness: “Dreams only come true in ‘Happy’ musicals (…and a few Hollywood movies,)” he smirks as things start heating up; “No, dreams are meant to be crushed—it’s nature’s way!” It is he who keeps the action flowing. In the midst of the opening number, he lets loose his ‘Inner Tom Jones” to a delectably balmy comedic effect—same as he attains with many opportunities over the course of the show.
Beside him much of the time is Via May as “Little Sally”, a local street urchin. Ms. May has a pleasing voice and exhibits a thrilling commitment to everything she’s been tasked with. Consider too, how “Little Sally” is the most ‘mobile’ of all those we’ll meet so she’s the most logical persona to open the story up. Our initial taste of her singing talent is revealed in the opening “This Is Urinetown”; Later in Act Two, she follows up with her contribution to the jaunty, jazz-inspired “Snuff That Girl”. Not long after, she impresses again—finding just the right balance twixt send-up, solemnity and silliness, imparting her ‘emotive’ revelation (or, well, “Bobby’s” to be precise,) “Tell Her I Love Her’, a whimsically staged duet with her relating “Bobby’s” ‘last’ words that has her starting the lines until his ‘spirit’ takes over while she continues mouthing them. Rick Reischman also furnishes laudable support as “Senator Fipp”—a greasy politician in-cahoots with “Cladwell”, (and who may just harbor a few ‘secrets’ himself.) And speaking of ‘unrequited’ secrets, Gary Douglas also does a stand-up job as “Lockstock’s” other sidekick, “Officer Barrel”. His stage time may be somewhat limited, but it is always distinctive nonetheless, as with his verses of “Cop Song” sung opposite Rubiano. Andrew Taylor too, is responsible for his share of the laughs as “Mr. McQueen” –Cladwell’s oily suck-up of an aide, one of that infuriating ilk that believes just ‘doing their job’ over-rides any nobler moral obligation or ethical consideration. He similarly has smaller moments all through the happenings, but especially stands out in numbers that unfold at the notorious “U.G.C”: “Mr. Cladwell” and “Don’t Be The Bunny” specifically. Then again, being a smaller cast musical, everyone in the company plays an actual ‘named’ character, and each in their individual way, enhances the show’s triumphs and enjoyment quotient. They consist of: Tucker Price as “Bobby’s’ recalcitrant dad, “Joseph (Old Man) Strong”, Veronique Merrill Warner as his wife and Bobby’s mother “Ma Strong”, Ja’lil Nelson as “Tiny Tom” (on top of appearing as Cladwell’s advisor, “Dr. Billeaux”,) Kyra Olschewske as “Soupy Sue”, Jessica Flynn as “Little Becky Two-Shoes” and Russell Malang as “Robby The Stockfish”.
David Scaglione’s set design encompasses a more utilitarian-meets-urban decay ‘look’, even incorporating several oversized ‘work lights’ above the stage and a big brick wall at the stage’s rear, behind which (separated by a chain link fence,) is the band. At various intervals, the ‘wall’ revolves to unveil a richer, ‘classier’ marble counterpart that suggests the more ‘upscale’ offices of “Cladwell’s” base of operations. Framing the playing area is a pastiche of rusty corrugated sheets of metal and broken boards, with a large poster off to stage right emblazoned on which is a huge number nine (the number of the ‘amenity’ that is the setting of so much of the action.) Before the show, keen-eyed audience members will even note faint wafts of stage’ smoke’ billowing forth from the wings to augment the ‘feel’ of desolation and degeneration. These are complimented by Szu-Yun Wang’s atmospheric lighting designs that make terrific use of “up lighting” for more sinister or suspenseful effects—often slyly ‘commenting’ on a given number (such as with the opening) as its final notes are heard. Not to be overlooked either is Jessica Dellrae Rivera’s pristine sound design which assures the sound is both clarion clear and balanced, emanating into every part of the auditorium, while Christina Bayer’s ‘snazzy’ to ‘drabby’ costumes, (many replete with dapper period hats,) all reminiscent of the 1930’s, could give new meaning to the term evocative whether they be the stream-lined, ‘dressed up’ vintage office attire or the spot-on ‘dust-bowl’ era apparel for the more ‘run-down’, working-class roles.
To borrow a line from the show in which they sing: “Urinetown is your town if you’re hopeless, down and out”—in this instance a better, more fitting wording would be: “Urinetown is your show if you want to laugh out loud (–frequently!)” As part of the “Long Beach Playhouse’s” on-going Covid 19 policy, all patrons (including children), are required to provide ‘Proof of Vaccination’ or show a ‘Negative Covid Test’ result taken within the past 72 hours upon entry, in addition to remaining fully masked while inside the auditorium (masks remain optional while in the Lobby and Lounge areas.) Having opened on October 15th, “Urinetown” will play through November 19th, 2022, at “The Long Beach Playhouse’s” “Studio Theater” located at 5021 E. Anaheim Street in Long Beach CA. Showtimes are Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM, with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM; Tickets may be obtained on-line by logging onto: http://www.lbplayhouse.org/tickets/box-office ; or by calling the theater box-office at: (562) 494-1014. (Special discounts for Seniors, Students and Groups of 10 or more are also available for this engagement.)
Production Stills by Michael Hardy Photography, Courtesy Of Rovin Jay and “The Long Beach Playhouse” https://lbplayhouse.org/ ; Special Thanks To Rovin Jay, Sonya Randall, Sean F. Gray, Madison Mooney, Stephen Olear, And To The Cast And Crew Of “The Long Beach Playhouse’s” 2022 Production Of “Urinetown” For Making This Story Possible.