Your tickets should say 'Urinetown' | May 5, 2006 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - May 5, 2006

Your tickets should say 'Urinetown'

The plot is only half the story in the riotous, self-mocking 'Urinetown'

by Kevin Kirby

How to describe "Urinetown"? The offbeat musical comedy by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis is Palo Alto Players' latest offering. Its opening performance last Saturday at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd, proving that even bizarre subject matter and an unsavory title can't keep a good show down.

The show's premise is as simple as it is unlikely. Decades of drought have necessitated harsh rationing measures. The government has declared that private toilets are a water-wasting luxury that can no longer be indulged.

Consequently, sole control of all bathroom facilities has been granted to the UGC (that's the Urine Good Company), which uses its public restroom monopoly to generate huge profits in the form of usage fees.

The UGC's chairman, Caldwell B. Cladwell, has bribed a generation of politicians, who in turn have passed laws to prohibit relieving oneself in the bushes, in alleyways, even in canning jars in the privacy of one's own home — anywhere, in short, that is not a profit-generating UGC "amenity."

Naturally, it is the poor who suffer. Any attempt to circumvent the system, to pee without paying, is punished by immediate banishment to the mysterious Urinetown, a place from which no one returns.

The story unfolds predictably: Bobby Strong, one of Cladwell's low-level employees, has an epiphany in which he sees the masses free to pee wherever they please. He turns against the UGC and leads the city's poor in a rebellion, but not before falling in love (unwittingly, of course) with Cladwell's daughter, Hope.

If this premise seems a bit thin — if it's difficult to see why "Urinetown" took New York audiences by storm — it's because the plot is only half the story. It is the show's riotous, self-mocking style that audiences respond to, and it is this aspect of the show that is most difficult to describe. "Audacious" would be a suitable word, as would "irreverent," "satirical," "Brechtian," and even "postmodern."

The show opens with a musical number entitled "Too Much Exposition," in which the merits of the show's title and central conceit are discussed (or is it meta-discussed?) by two of its characters, Officer Lockstock (played by Cameron Weston) and Little Sally (Vanessa Weinfield). Meanwhile, a chorus of underprivileged townspeople belts out: "Urinetown! Your tickets should say 'Urinetown'!"

It is in these tongue-in-cheek moments that Palo Alto's production truly excels. With this sort of self-referential satire, style is the make-or-break element. Nothing shatters the magic of the created world as quickly as one actor who thinks he's doing a Restoration comedy while his castmates are striving for absurdism.

Thankfully, director Greg Schuh and his 16 actors are all on the same page.

In Officer Lockstock's dual functions as the show's narrator and the long, truncheon-wielding arm of the law, Weston sets the show's tone and rhythm with precision. With his rich voice and erect bearing, Weston can be menacing, charming, and wildly funny at the same time.

Equally good is Brandy Collazo as Hope Cladwell. Through the course of the play, Hope is transformed from heiress-apparent to skeptic to rebel leader. Collazo brings absolute conviction to Hope's naive literal-mindedness, and a lovely singing voice to Hope's musical numbers.

As her father, Russ Bohard is a multi-faceted villain. Sure, Cladwell is avarice personified, but he also seems to genuinely believe that the UGC's draconian measures are crucial to society's survival. (Who says conservation can't go hand in hand with corporate greed?) Bohard's Cladwell is also a pretty slick song and dance man.

The show's other leads are Nick Kealy as Bobby and Lexie Lazear as his boss, Miss Pennywise. Both are strong singers, and Kealy's nearly painful sincerity plays well against Lazear's street-hardened pragmatism.

Two of the show's most deliciously over-the-top performances come from a single actor: Ricky Altamirano as the bloodthirsty Hot Blades Harry and the ghost of Bobby's scofflaw father. The latter role is reminiscent of Hamlet's father's ghost — if Hamlet's dad had had a dimwitted comic sidekick and a push-broom for a beard.

Also particularly effective are Weinfield (whose Little Sally is sharp, tenacious, and utterly oblivious to the humor of the situation), John Brown as the conscience-stricken yet eminently bribable Senator Fipp, and Ron E. Evans as Lockstock's partner, Officer Barrel. (Lockstock and Barrel, get it? Get it?)

None of this would work, of course, without Schuh's extremely attentive direction. He has fine-tuned each gag for maximum punch; you could probably count on your fingers the number of jokes in the show that don't quite work.

The show's meta-humor is further enhanced by Christine Lazo's choreography, which borrows — and then subverts — recognizable idioms from 50 years of Broadway favorites. "Snuff That Girl," for instance, is a loving riff (no pun intended) on Jerome Robbins's "Cool" from "West Side Story." Aficionados may also detect iconic snippets from "Fiddler" and "Les Mis."

Matthew Mattei's musical direction is also praiseworthy. His backstage combo really cooks, and the vocal performances — with the exception of some mushy diction in the opening number and a few shaky rhythms in the Act I finale — are crisp and energized.

"Urinetown" is the must-see show in Palo Alto's diamond anniversary season. To paraphrase an old Monty Python sketch praising bat urine, it "shines out like a shaft of gold in the darkness." Those who are kept away by the name will never know what they missed.

What: "Urinetown," a musical presented by Palo Alto Players

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m., through May 14

Cost: Tickets are $22 for Sunday performances, $24 for Wed. & Thur., and $29 for Fri. & Sat. (Students and seniors receive a $3 discount on Wed., Thur., and Sun.)

Info: Call the box office at (650) 329-0891. For more information, go to www.paplayers.org.

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