Tuesday, April 30, 2024

"Urinetown" at Lakeshore Players Theatre

Lakeshore Players Theatre's 71st season just keeps getting better! I would say that their new production of the hilarious satirical musical Urinetown is the best thing they've done this season, but then I remember the other great shows they've done this season (She Loves Me, I Am My Own Wife, and more). Suffice it to say that this is their best season since I've been attending shows at the Hanifl Performing Arts Center in lovely downtown White Bear Lake (which admittedly has only been about six years). Urinetown is one of my favorite musicals, since seeing the Broadway tour over 20 years ago. There have been a handful of #TCTheater productions, but it's been a while, so I was thrilled to see it as the conclusion of this ambitious season which began with the smart, funny, and relevant play What the Constitution Means to Me. I'm even more thrilled to report that it's a fantastic production, with a talented and energetic cast, detailed design, fun choreography, and direction that hits on all of the humor and relevancy of the script (continuing through May 19).

Officer Lockstock (Christian Unser) and Little Sally
(Julia Scott Russell, photo by M&D Media)
The 2002 Broadway hit with the funny name, Urinetown, is set in a dystopian future in which an extreme water shortage and corrupt businessmen and politicians have resulted in private bathrooms being illegal. Everyone must pay to use the "public amenities," with ever-increasing fees. The difference between the haves and have-nots is extreme, with the populace living in poverty and saving every penny, while the owner of Urine Good Company (UGC), which controls the amenities, and his pals live in luxury. The story is narrated by Officer Lockstock. His sidekick, Little Sally, is constantly asking him tough questions. Their conversation frequently breaks the 4th wall as they comment on the show at hand. As Ms. Pennywise fiercely enforces the fees, the hero of our story, Bobby Strong, decides that people shouldn't have to pay to pee, and leads them in a revolution to take back the toilets. Along the way he falls in love with the innocent and trusting Hope, daughter of the evil Mr. Cladwell. But as we're told, this is not a happy musical. We don't get the happy ending we expect, but it sure is fun to watch it all unfold.*

the young lovers Hope and Bobby (Caitlin Sparks and
Hawken Paul, photo by M&D Media)
Actor/playwright/director Greta Grosch (Church Basement Ladies playwright) takes the helm here, leaning into the comic satirical almost campy tone. Everything is big, broad, and over-the-top, yet somehow still grounded with moments of humanity and heart. Everyone in this large ensemble cast is on board with this tone, many of them playing multiple roles. Christian Unser is great as the narrator Officer Lockstock, performing with subtle (and not so subtle) winks to the audience. Julia Scott Russell is perfectly cast as the precocious Little Sally, dragging a worn and grimy doll around by its leg. As our hero Bobby Strong, Hawken Paul performs with an appealing earnestness that cuts through the camp. Caitlin Sparks is a strong Hope, with a lovely voice, and the two make an adorable couple (despite the kidnapping). Their duet "Follow Your Heart" is a musical, comedic, and emotional highlight. Marty Swaden is deliciously evil as Cladwell, and Mary Palazzolo fully embodies the tough-talking but tender-hearted Pennwise, like Rosie the Riveter with bright red lipstick that never fades. Truly everyone in this ensemble is terrific, finding little character moments even in a quick stage cross. 

the Cladwells and Pennywise (Caitlin Sparks, Marty Swaden,
and Mary Palazzolo, photo by M&D Media)
Music Director Michael Pearce Donley leads the small but mighty five-piece band, seated onstage on top of the shabby-looking structure that the cast climbs in, on, and around. The stage is full of flotsam and jetsam, from old bicycles to rusty equipment (scenic and lighting design by Sarah Brandner, props design by Brandt Roberts). The cast is dressed in similarly shabby and ratty clothing, their faces smudged with dirt. In contrast, the UGC execs are in green-tinted sharp suits, Hope in a sweet retro dress that gets ever more unkempt, along with her hair (costume design by Bronson Talcott). Chris Adam's choreography is fun and funny and character-specific, the cast moving all over the stage. This is to say that all elements are thoughtful and detailed. With perhaps one exception: I heard reports of some sound issues towards the back of the theater, and even where I was sitting in the front row, I sometimes wished the vocals were just a touch louder. I hope they get that figured out, because every note, every word of this outstanding production deserves to be heard clearly.

In the 20+ years since its premiere, the themes of Urinetown have only gotten more relevant. The wide gap between the very poor and the extreme rich, corrupt politicians who make decisions for their own good and not ours, powerful and greedy businessmen with too much influence, environmental crises, and protests to achieve a more just world. All of this is wrapped up in a super fun musical, that also pokes gentle fun at the form itself, with references to West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Les Miserables, and more, making the uncomfortable messages ("don't you think people want to be told that their way of life is unsustainable?") go down a little more smoothly.

Visit Urinetown weekends through May 19. Just make sure you pay the proper fee (a very reasonable $15-38, but the toilets are free!).

*Plot summary borrowed from my reviews of previous productions.