When we talk about protecting our inalienable rights, we tend to leave out some of our most basic and most essential ones, such as our right to urinate.
This is the dystopia of “Urinetown,” the newest musical to run at the Clarence Brown Theatre on campus.
Set in a gritty unnamed city, Urinetown describes a world where, after a devastating drought, water rights have been restricted and placed into the greedy hands of the Urine Good Company (UGC). To conserve water, private restrooms have been replaced by for-profit public alternatives. Like with any other for-profit amenity, the rich benefit a lot more than the poor.
If this sounds to you like a show filled with plot holes and bathroom humor — well, that would be correct. But within the absurdist musical comedy, there are some genuinely thought-provoking ideas.
We first meet the cast outside Public Amenity #9, the cheapest and grimiest option for those who can barely afford to use the bathroom. The actors, in full crust punk apparel, beg for change as they are herded by Ms. Pennywise (Charlotte Munson), the restroom’s ultra-bureaucratic gatekeeper.
Each actor gives outstanding performances throughout the show, but it is the team of Little Sally (Crystal-Marie Alberson) and Officer Lockstock (Norm Boucher) that really lend the production its magic. On paper, Lockstock is the show’s narrator, yet it is in his conversations with Sally that the real plot exposition occurs. As the play begins, we hear the two discuss the history of bathroom regulations in the city, although Sally is quickly silenced by Lockstock, who doesn’t want to overwhelm the audience with information.
Despite what feels like a formulaic plot, wherein unassuming everyman Bobby Strong (Jade Arnold) takes on an evil corporation and falls in love along the way, there are moments of true experimentation in the play. The duo of Lockstock and Sally frequently break the fourth wall, commenting on the narrative in real time, even airing their grievances with the production of which they are the stars.
“This isn’t a happy play,” Lockstock repeats several times.
After his father is taken to the infamous Urinetown, a mythical penal colony for the piss poor, Bobby becomes the leader of the urination revolution. He fronts the resistance movement against Caldwell B. Cladwell (Peter Kevoian), corrupt robber baron and founder of the UGC. Along the way, he falls in love with Cladwell's daughter, Hope, played by Brittany Marie Pirozzoli (the heavy-handed symbolism of the name is lost on nobody, not even the characters).
As the proletariat heroes fight the evil bourgeoisie of Cladwell’s corporation, we are forced to wonder just how extreme the soldiers of a cause are justified in being. Can we still stand behind the freedom fighters as they kidnap Cladwell's daughter and threaten to kill her? And if Strong’s army does get their way, how will they regulate the ever-depleting water if restrooms are once again free and exploitable?
These burning realities inject a sense of realism into the play’s naïve revolution, showing just how fallible idealism can be.
Lending to the play’s pseudo-noir is its outstanding orchestral accompaniment, led by conductor Terry Silver-Alford. From cringe-inducing ballads to the “Chicago”-esque jazz numbers, the band commands control of the show’s ambience without becoming a distraction from the vocalists.
The play never veers into dull slapstick humor, instead relying on clever self-awareness, wry pastiche and comedic absurdism. The rotating cast of characters are both archetypal and rounded, and by the show’s end, good and evil seem to blur and lose meaning.
Essentially, “Urinetown” can be seen as a play for people who don’t much care for plays. The show is imbued with enough humor and irony to beset any pretensions one might associate with theater, and the end result is a genuinely entertaining production.
“Urinetown” will run until May 6 at the Clarence Brown Theatre. Tickets can be found at the Knoxville Tickets website.