Potty Humor: Urinetown, University of Chicago alumni’s award-winning musical, makes a splash at University Theater

Bobby Strong's revolt; photo by Daniel Forbush

Bobby Strong's revolt; photo by Daniel Forbush

Urineluck–because “Urinetown,” a swimmingly successful musical written and composed by University of Chicago alumni Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman, has arrived on the stage of their alma mater. The musical, which won three Tony Awards, is an unsettling, zesty, and genuinely funny send-up of Broadway hits such as “Annie,” “Evita,” “Les Misérables,” “West Side Story,” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” It explores elements of dramaturgy and spits out a side-splitting caricature of its results, often blatantly drawing attention to the fact. (“Nothing can kill a show like too much exposition.”) This is one play that certainly doesn’t ask you to suspend your disbelief. It makes its meta attitude clear from the get-go, as a character after the overture welcomes the audience to, “Urinetown. Not the place, of course. The musical.”

The denizens of the decrepit city that serves as the setting for the play are a twitchy, fidgety bunch–and with good reason. A drought means that the poverty-stricken parts of town are being squeezed for cash. All have to pay per pee at the last functioning urinal in the vicinity run by the plunger-wielding Pennywise. Bryn Adams, who breathes life into a hybrid of Ms. Hannigan and Matron “Mama,” manages to achieve a convincing blend of bitter ruthlessness and ham-fisted humanity. A woman hardened by urban squalor, her no-nonsense attitude means she doesn’t hesitate much to call the cops on those who fail to adhere to the rules of Urine Good Company’s rules, warning, “If you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go through me.”

Seated comfortably atop Urine Good Company is the detestable Caldwell B. Cladwell (Augie Praley) who epitomizes the corporate Fat Rat with a natural and notable stage presence. With a resonant voice to complement theatrical ease, he gives a rousing performance as Caldwell (“I can bring in bucks by the buckets”) Cladwell. The iron-fisted, maniacal persona works effectively to poke fun at the corruptibility of capitalism and the petty bureaucracy.

But what is a despot without minions? And mignon they are: Cladwell’s cronies come in the form of Officers Lockstock and Barrel, who make the stiflingly scrutinizing society what it is by prowling the streets for deviant pissers. Officer Lockstock’s tongue-in-cheek charm is conveyed impeccably by the charismatic Morgan Maher and accompanied by a profound voice.

Molly Zeins, who appears to have stepped out of a Broadway musical and onto a University Theater stage, plays the seraphic Hope (“Life should be beautiful”) Cladwell, foil to her father, the malevolent mogul. The ingénue’s rosy outlook on life and her grade school teacher charm are enough to inspire the quixotic everyman-cum-swashbuckling hero Bobby Strong, whose unfortunate initials are not incongruous with the tone of the play. Lucas Whitehead brings energy to the role, infusing his unpolished character with the innocent determination of a klutzy revolutionary.

It is a challenge not to go over the top with characters as farcical as the ones in “Urinetown,” and Little Sally (Amanda Jacobson), a pert and insightful street urchin who functions as a narrator alongside Officer Lockstock, does a decent though occasionally overly energetic job of balancing hyperbole and childishness.

Granted, the “central conceit of the show,” as Officer Lockstock points out, is urination, but along with all the swagger and satire the show’s self-conscious nature is endearing and not at all unwelcome in times like these. Wondering about the privilege to pee might not be as hilariously absurd as it is made out to be in light of current economic circumstances. Officer Lockstock’s ironic narration can sometimes warrant a thought to the future rather than a chuckle, as when he contemplates, “Don’t you think people want to be told their way of life is unsustainable?”

The murky, derelict environment is achieved effectively, though the set design and costumes, whilst well chosen, are occasionally not in keeping with the context of the play. There is, for example, Penelope Pennywise’s pristine white shirt gleaming beneath a tatty work robe, or the finish on Hope’s supposedly designer dress. The choice to perform in a small theater seems to have been the right one, allowing for intimacy that has you squirming in your seat with laughter and a renewed sense of social obligation. Props go to professional director Jonathan Berry and choreographer Kat Lieder, who impart verve on the musical lampoon, to go with a well-orchestrated score that ranges from gospel to jazz and often recalls Sondheim.

Francis X. Kinahan Theatre, 5706 S. University Ave. Through March 14. Wednesday-Saturday, 8pm. $6. ut.uchicago.edu