Delightful dystopian dreams in ‘Urinetown’

Lorenz Angelo Gonzales/Staff

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“Urinetown” is the most self-conscious musical ever written. It’s a play that makes the audience laugh before delivering a message that’s so in-your-face that it, too, becomes funny. It takes a light touch to present it in the right combination of force and farce, and the BareStage Production has exactly that touch. Director Weston Scott has put together an impressive run of the Tony Award winner that delivers much more than the ticket price indicates.

The show is a tuneful look at a hellish dystopia of a world short on clean water and devoid of private toilets. The cast offers a great balance of charm and talent to this story. Alex Millen in the lead role of Bobby Strong has the perfect heroic bearing and idealistic tenor, and he sells every minute of the show. Sophomore Cecily Schmidt pulls off the part of Little Sally with youthful aplomb and just the right dollop of sarcasm on top. Opposite her, junior Adam Niemann puts in a hilarious and lively performance as Officer Lockstock with a great feel for tone change in scenes requiring an elbow in the ribs or a finger in the eye.

The story of the romance between privileged heiress Hope Cladwell and working-class revolutionary Bobby Strong unfolds amid pee jokes and cunning stage pieces made of garbage. (Ironically, identifiable bougie Berkeley cardboard bearing the labels for organic produce appear somewhat prominently.) The play unsubtly reveals itself, blatantly aware of its own existence in the constellation of musicals and exposing its own shallowness through fourth-wall-defying narration throughout. It handles this meta-musical with erudite alacrity, benefitting from a well-read and politically agitated cast, crew and audience.

Frankly, “Urinetown” is a perfect play for this town and this university. While it doesn’t directly mention the current drought or water crisis, its tongue-in-cheek eco-awareness is funny and ironic while still delivering a terribly inconvenient truth.

The main cast has a few weaker points. Trina Rizzo is charming as Hope Cladwell, but her soprano lacks oomph in most ensemble numbers. She shines in the more intimate duets, and the issue may be more due to the poor acoustics in the basement of Cesar Chavez than to her voice. Both Audrey Baker (Penelope Pennywise) and Matthew Borchardt (Caldwell B. Cladwell) undertake the play’s requisite trans-Atlantic style accent with less-than-stellar results. But all cast members perform with admirable physicality, in raucous and impressive dance numbers such as “Snuff that Girl.” Deadpan one-liners break up long stretches of exposition and poke fun at the genre of musical in general — and “Urinetown” in particular. The ensemble has a collective brilliance of timing that must be the result of careful rehearsal.

Chorus members provide quite a few bright spots and some of the funniest lines in the show. In “Run Freedom Run,” junior Addie Clarke (Josephine Strong) shows off a sadly underutilized vocal range and a wordless comedic genius that reminds one of Lucille Ball. In darker scenes, Matthew Williams (Hot Blades Harry) shows he has a gifted Jim Carrey-esque face and knows exactly how to use it. “Urinetown” is a show that rests on the shoulders of its chorus, and this production is very strong because of the group.

Scott’s production is accompanied by a five-piece orchestra, most of whom perform expertly. There is a trifling lag from the trombone in moments when the play can ill afford it that one hopes will improve in subsequent performances. Eun Hee Kim leads the score on piano with a deft and jazzy hand that conceals most lapses, and Mathijs Arens’ percussion keeps the whole cast jumping.

The musical features an excellent pace and polished feel. This production will delight first-time “Urinetown” viewers and pleasantly surprise repeat visitors. Count your pennies, get in line!

Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].