Social Message, Musical Mockery

Old-fashioned political storytelling and modern self-referential satire collide in Urinetown, the Musical. This witty, subversive show first made its mark at the New York International Fringe Festival, but it built enough momentum to take Broadway audiences and critics by storm during the 2001-2002 season, even stealing several major Tonys away from Thoroughly Modern Millie. The show lasted a miraculous two and a half years before going dark on the Great White Way. Now, the Gallery Players's recent incarnation proves it's quite the evergreen. Director Tom Wojtunik brings the show to Park Slope, though its setting is a "Gotham-like city, sometime after the Stink Years." Drought has allowed a corrupt alliance, led chiefly by corporate exec Caldwell B. Cladwell (Kim Shipley) and enforced by Officer Lockstock (Jon Frazier), to outlaw private toilets, charging all citizens for use of public facilities. Eventually, this brings about a revolution not unlike the rebellion against the empire in the Star Wars movies. The Han Solo of Urinetown is Bobby Strong (Joshua James Campbell), and his Princess Leia is the well-intentioned Hope Cladwell (Catia Ojeda), daughter of Caldwell B. The action escalates not long after Bobby and Hope recognize their affections for each another, when many of the other members of the rebellion catch on to her paternity and hold her hostage in a bartering power play.

Funny as it is, Urinetown echoes the socially conscious plays of the first half of the 20th century, particularly the work of Bertolt Brecht, the classic provocateur of self- and social reflection. Neither the show nor this production shies away from some serious undertones about absolute power and how easily citizens take what they have for granted. But with a clever score by Mark Hollmann and book by Greg Kotis (echoing The Threepenny Opera, which Kurt Weill wrote with Brecht), Urinetown packages itself in a far more palatable manner than most socially conscious works.

It does so by mocking other shows and theatrical conventions. Look carefully to see gentle ribbings of Fiddler on the Roof, Rent, Wicked, and, especially, Les Misérables (kudos to Ryan Kasprzak's winning choreography). No show, however, gets slammed by Urinetown more than Urinetown itself. Frazier, as Lockstock, also serves as the show's narrator, and throughout he lets the audience know that the show doesn't take itself seriously. "Welcome to Urinetown," he says. "Not the place, of course. The musical." Additionally, he admits that his character is safe from harm because, naturally, it cannot end without him.

Nor would one want it to. Frazier, with his dynamite baritone and perfectly timed sense of humor, is but one member of a highly professional production. Ojeda and Shipley share an amusing harmony as the conflicting Cladwells, and Campbell is a welcome discovery as the rebellion's charismatic leader. Kat Aberle succeeds in the deceptively simple—and sweet—role of Little Sally, the street urchin who has witnessed more than any little girl should.

One of the most compelling performances comes from Jennifer McCabe as Penelope Pennywise, one of the fools suffering Caldwell B. so gladly. Or does she? One of the charms of Urinetown is that while the story and music use many standard theatrical devices—a character proves not as harmful as expected; there's an eleventh-hour musical number reprise—it acknowledges these devices at every step, defining itself as a parable whose message is more important than the story that reels its audiences in.

And does it ever reel us in. So tight is Wojtunik's direction that every member of the excellent ensemble is completely focused in character and full of nuance, not just shtick. Perfect from start to finish, top to bottom, the Gallery Players's production doesn't just mock other great works of theater; it deserves a place in that canon all its own.

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