Dominion Stage UrinetownBy Bob Ashby • Jan 13th, 2014 • Category: Reviews
Dominion Stage: (Info) (Web)
Gunston Arts Center, Arlington, VA
Through January 25th
2:15 with intermission
Reviewed January 10th, 2013
As Officer Lockstock is at pains to point out, the Tony Award-winning Urinetown is not a happy musical. But it is an extremely funny one, taking satirical swipes at rapacious corporations, environmentalism, law enforcement, romantic rebellion, political corruption, and, most of all, the conventions of the Broadway musical. Dominion Stage’s production hits enough of the show’s high points to make for an enjoyable evening.
The show’s setup is that an environmental catastrophe has wiped out all but a trickle of the water supply of a New York-like city, rendering private toilets obsolete. The Urine Good Company (UGC), headed by cheerful monopolist Caldwell B. Cladwell (Michael Bagwell), charges extortionate fees for the use of the few remaining public toilets, called “Amenities.” Pee in the bushes to avoid the fees and the police will haul you off to the ominous Urinetown.
Cladwell’s philosophy is twofold: pay off corrupt politicians, like Senator Fipp (Kyle Keene), with piles of cash, and, as he explains to his daughter Hope (Melissa Berkowitz) in the delightful “Don’t Be The Bunny,” ruthlessly stamp out any protest from the poor. Bagwell brings an easy-going, song-and-dance man sensibility to the role, as well as a pleasant light baritone voice. In the second act scene in which Cladwell tries to bribe Bobby, having Cladwell take his reasons for imposing draconian discipline on the city’s water use more seriously, rather than simply with with smiling cynicism, would have added an interesting layer to the characterization.
As necessitated by Broadway convention, Hope — she is the soprano ingénue, after all — must fall in love with the robust young hero, Bobby Strong (Matt Liptak), who proceeds to lead a rebellion of the poor against UGC’s tyranny of the potty. The two work well together in the first act’s “Follow Your Heart.” Berkowitz has all the requirements for her role, including a fresh-faced pretty look, a fine though not overpowering soprano voice (and, incidentally, a rich lower register displayed at the beginning of “I See a River”), and a wide-eyed innocence that both embodies and spoofs the Broadway ingénue tradition. Liptak is appealingly stalwart as the naïve, Marius-like rebel leader, though he sometimes falls short of the vocal demands of the role, especially in its higher reaches.
On the other hand, Katherine Lipovsky, as Penelope Pennywise, convincingly hits the high belt points of “It’s a Privilege to Pee.” She exhibits a strong presence throughout, though she is given to extensive mugging. This, however, seems consistent with the overall approach of director Patrick M. Doneghy, who appears determined to wring every drop of melodrama from his actors. Urinetown, granted, is not the place to look for naturalistic acting, and the show’s humor is in-your-face cheesy. But Doneghy has the cast pile on helpings of extra cheese as though he lacked confidence that the material would carry on its own. To his credit, Doneghy keeps the pace sprightly, and his stage pictures are clear and flow smoothly.
Among other cast members, Ian A. Coleman stands out as the mincing Mr. McQueen, Cladwell’s assistant, in a noticeably different take on a role that can sometimes fade into the background. Little Sally (Dana Robinson) gets to be the character who chronically tells the truth, which she does with verve, though her cuteness can be a bit forced at some points. As Officer Lockstock, who doubles as the narrator, Christopher Guy Thorn displays a strong baritone voice, singing and moving well in the rap-like “Cop Song” and always at the ready with an ironic comment on the action. Steve Custer’s Officer Barrel lacks only a curly mustache to be a full-fledged, chortling Snidely Whiplash villain. Custer is also the combat choreographer for the production, responsible for some amusing fight scenes, as when Pennywise beats up a trio of attackers.
Urinetown is a very strong ensemble show, and Dominion’s ensemble comes through with flying colors. There are some missed opportunities for interesting movement in the first act, but the ensemble and the choreography (by Doneghy and Rikki Howie) hit their stride in the rousing back-to-back-to-back production numbers that begin Act 2 (“What is Urinetown?,” “Snuff that Girl,” and “Run Freedom Run”). The first two of these numbers provide opportunities for references to dance moments from Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story, respectively, while “Run Freedom Run” — Liptak’s strongest number — is a nice turn on Broadway gospel numbers from “Blow Gabriel Blow” and “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” on forward.
The show that takes the most direct hits from Urinetown, however, is Les Miserables. “Look At the Sky” is straight out of the Les Miz inspirational song of idealistic rebellion playbook. The second act death scene directly sends up the traditional staging of Javert’s suicide. This scene is also a highlight moment for the set design (David Moretti), as two ranks of sliding panels part, allowing the character to “fall” to his splat amidst swirling lights. Urinetown calls for a complex set, representing the Amenity managed by Miss Pennywise, Cladwell’s office, and street and underground sewer scenes. Moretti manages this with a multi-level set, incorporating a variety of stairways, ramps, and platforms, and which uses panels that slide or flip in and out to create the various locales (my favorite was a lighted sign pointing the way to a “Secret Hideout”). Set changes are accomplished efficiently.
Costumes (Laura Fontaine and Holly McDade) are generally in subdued colors for the ensemble, appropriate for the legion of the poor, with white for Hope and an appropriately more upscale look for Cladwell (as the name requires) and his minions. With many actors double-cast, wigs were a necessity, but did they have to be this hideous? In addition to the swirling lights for the second act death scene, the lighting design (Sean Doyle) featured a blindingly bright moment in “Look at the Sky” and covered the various levels of the set effectively.
The sound design (Kevin DeMine) had a success with the reverb effect for Old Man Strong’s post-mortem appearances. (Having stage crew appear in the wings with fog guns during these and a few other scenes was a nice touch.) However, sound levels were sometimes not well-balanced among the actors, and there were a variety of snaps, crackles, pops, and feedback moments during the second act. These opening night glitches will likely be fixed in future performances. Music director Kevin Diana, consistently visible upstage right, directs the six-piece band that competently accompanies the proceedings.
When Urinetown opened, just a few weeks after 9/11, inequality of wealth and income had not yet become the preeminent public issue that it is today. While losing none of its fun in the process, the show’s satire of the gulf between the rich overlords and everyone else — not to mention the role of money in politics — has acquired an even sharper edge than it had in 2001. All the more reason why strong productions of Urinetown will continue to engage audiences on more than one level.
“The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation…” Malthus T.R. 1798
To think the writer of this musical found his inspiration after being caught in dire straits while on holiday in Europe. Book and co-lyricist Greg Kotis, after failing to take money with him to a pay toilet, found himself begging for change outside a European restroom in the late 1990’s. This experience inspired Kotis to begin writing his inventive musical, which not only satirizes corporate greed and social idealism, but is a parody of the American musical itself. Audiences will hear familiar riffs reminiscent of West Side Story, Les Miserables, Big River, Chicago, and Fiddler on the Roof, along with many other musicals. With its Brechtian cleverness, Urinetown: The Musical even manages to capitalize on its own “bad title” and off-color subject matter. The show garnered three Tony awards, thus proving that inspiration can truly pour from anywhere.
Photos by Jessica Sperlongano
- Caldwell B. Cladwell: Michael Bagwell
- Joseph “Old Man” Strong/Hot Blades Harry/UGC Lab Assistant #2: Matt Baughman
- Hope Cladwell: Melissa Berkowitz
- Robbie the Stockfish/UGC Executive #2/Roger Roosevelt: Michael Bigley
- Mr. McQueen/Clean Cut Carl: Ian A. Coleman
- Officer Barrel: Steve Custer
- Mrs. Millenium/Downtown Delores: Teresa Danskey
- Billy Boy Bill/UGC Lab Assistant #1/Jacob Rosenbloom: Willie Garner
- Tiny Tom/UGC Executive #1: Ian Hoch
- Senator Fipp/Lenny the Pick: Kyle Keene
- Becky 2 Shoes/UGC Staff: Lauren Kuhn
- Penelope Pennywise: Katherine Lipovsky
- Bobby Strong: Matt Liptak
- Dr. Billeaux/Frankie the Flash: James Maxted
- Josephine Strong: Larissa Norris
- Little Sally: Dana Robinson
- UGC Staff/Pip Squeak Peggy/Julie Cassidy: Joelle Thomas
- Officer Lockstock: Christopher Guy Thorn
- Cladwell’s Secretary/Betty the Fin: Leslie Walbert
- Soupy Sue/UGC Staff: Erica Wisniewski
The “U-TM” Musical Ensemble
- Music Director/Conductor: Kevin Diana
- Keyboard: Harold Walbert
- Drums: Jim Hoffman
- Reeds: Alisha Coleman
- Reeds: Allen Howe
- Trombone: Olin Nettles
The Production Team
- Producers: Shawn g. Byers, Richard Isaacs
- Director: Patrick M. Doneghy
- Music Director: Kevin Diana
- Stage Manager: Christine Farrell
- Choreographers: Patrick M. Doneghy, Rikki Howie
- Combat Choreographer: Steve Custer
- Scenic (Set) and Painting Design: David M. Moretti
- Lighting Design: Sean Doyle
- Sound Design: Kevin DeMine
- Master Carpenters: Jake Carson, David M. Moretti
- Properties Design: Wynter Chatman, Shauna Knight
- Costume Design: Laura Fontaine, Holly McDade
- Makeup Design: Larissa Norris
- Hair Design: Patrick M. Doneghy, Laura Fontaine
- Special Effects Design: Hector Lorenzini
- Set Construction/Painting Crew: Alex Bryce, Kevin DeMine, Brian Frankl, Tracy Gray, Eric Retzloff, Rachel Wolkowitz
- Load In/Tech Assistance: Joe Aquilina, Alex Bryce, Shawn g. Byers, Jake Carson, Kevin DeMine, Brian Frankl, Richard Isaacs,
- Matthew Randall, Eric Retzloff, Jim Vincent, Rachel Wolkowitz
- Onstage Deck Manager: Rachel Wolkowitz
- Stage Deck Crew: Robert King, Eric Retzloff
- Spot Operator: Rachel Lau
- Audition Pianist/Accompanist: Harold Walbert
- Auditions: The Dominion Stage Board
- Campaign and Archival Photography: Jessica Sperlongano
- Multimedia Specialist: Heather Horton
Disclaimer: Dominion Stage provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/10040.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.