Theater: An Appalling Idea, Set to Music » Urban Milwaukee
Marguerite Helmers
Theater

An Appalling Idea, Set to Music

The Skylight performs ‘Urinetown,’ the first toilet-centric musical. It’s damn funny.

By - May 16th, 2018 04:51 pm
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Cast of Urinetown in rehearsal for Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Urinetown, The Musical May 18 – June 10 on the Cabot Theatre stage. Photo by Mark Frohna.

Cast of Urinetown in rehearsal for Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Urinetown, The Musical May 18 – June 10 on the Cabot Theatre stage. Photo by Mark Frohna.

“We all want a world filled with peace and with joy, with plenty of water for each girl and boy.”

In a typical musical, this would be an anthem for change. But this line is from Urinetown, the Musical, a dystopian comedy set in a “Gotham-like city” in America where an evil corporation named Urine Good Company has privatized toilets and punishes public elimination with death.

Following its Broadway premiere in 2001, Bruce Weber of the New York Times called Urinetown “toilet-centric,” a “marvelously self-conscious satire of the musical theater’s social conscience, which focuses equally on human rights and body waste.” Official T-shirts for the show announced “An appalling idea, fully realized.”

Ray Jivoff will direct a new production at the Skylight Music Theatre, running May 18 through June 10 at the Cabot Theatre of the Broadway Theatre Center.

Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis began working on the musical in 1995, when they were performing in Chicago with the Cardiff Giant and Neo-Futurists theater groups. The story goes that Kotis was backpacking in Europe when he discovered that most public toilets were pay per use. He started to imagine a world where everyone would have to “pay to pee.”

Environmental consciousness was coming of age in the 1990s. The Earth Charter was signed in 1994, warning of climate change from greenhouse gas buildup. Well aware of global environmental challenges, Kotis wrote in the introduction to the script, “We burn too much oil, build too many roads and too many houses, create too much garbage.”

Twenty years later, the themes of environmental disaster and greed are still relevant. Urinetown could be set in Flint, Michigan, where an ongoing water crisis has revealed lead, chlorine, fecal coliform bacteria, E. coli, and byproducts of disinfectants in the drinking water.

The character Little Sally (performed by Kaylee Annable) says, “Urinetown is your town, if you’re hopeless, down-and-out!”

Working for change are the young hero and his love interest, Bobby and Hope (wait for it, the joke with their names will come to you). After seeing his father hauled away by Officers Lockstock and Barrell (Rick Pendzich and Tim Rebers, respectively), Bobby (Lucas Pastrana) launches a revolt and lets the customers at urinal Amenity #9 in for free.

This is dark comedy, though, and there are no happy endings for Bobby or Hope (who will be performed by Rachael Zientek). As Kotis put it in the published script, “What happens if the play offers no clear prescription for the troubles it images, no ‘Love is the answer’?”

Lockstock warns the audience, “dreams only come true in happy musicals.”

Tony Awards, Urinetown medley (4 minutes)

But there are lots of snappy lines and jaunty songs, performed by a small ensemble made up of bass (Tom McGirr), reeds (Ron Foster), trombone and euphonium (Kyle Samuelson), and percussion (Mike Lorenz). They include the ballad “It’s a Privilege to Pee”, the evil “Don’t Be the Bunny” (Goodbye, bunny-boo, hello, rabbit stew!), a rousing gospel tune “Run, Freedom, Run!,” and “Snuff That Girl,” which turns the musical Annie on its head.  Unmistakable musical references to Three Penny Opera, West Side Story, and Les Mis mark the score.

Performances of Urinetown are May 18 to June 10, 2018 in the Cabot Theatre, Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, in the Historic Third Ward of Milwaukee. Tickets can be purchased online, in person at the box office, or by calling 414-291-7800.

Urinetown, the Musical Gallery

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