Let's not piss away any space beating around the bush. Instead, a loud declamation: The bar has been raised for locally produced musicals. From its surprise-joke beginning to its rueful finish, the brilliantly staged and performed Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of Urinetown, the Musical is extravagantly entertaining. Now that we've seen what is possible, it's going to be tough to return to business as usual.
There is nothing "usual" about Urinetown, starting with its absurdly simple plot. Enduring drought has led to a water shortage so severe that private toilets are no more. Now people must pay to use "public amenities" to attend to their "private business." Urinetown's irreverent creators, as part of their death wish to not succeed commercially, have sought to position this musical as neo-Brechtian. Brecht's very name is usually enough to scare off fair-weather theatergoers. But you needn't be too alarmed, for this is Brecht as squeezed through the catheter of Hal Prince. The effervescent evening pays homage to such Prince-ly musicals as Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story and Sweeney Todd, as well as the likes of Les Misérables, Into the Woods, Guys and Dolls, even the obscure Grass Harp.
As the show begins and a title-bearing drape masks Michael Schweikardt's pee-stained set, you're less likely to be reminded of Brecht than of The Fantasticks. But this satirical exercise in innocence and cynicism turns out to be The Fantasticks waterboarded. In unfolding its fable about a tyrant who employs scare tactics to control the fearful masses, the plot begins to have a vaguely familiar ring. It's only after "the good guys take over and everything starts falling apart" that we clearly see the show as a reflection of our daily headlines. No matter that Urinetown predates 9/11; this is the quintessential Iraq War musical.
Fairview Heights native Mark Hollmann has composed an exuberant pogo-stick score that propels the fast-paced proceedings. If there are traces of Kurt Weill in his melodies, we also hear influences from Frank Loesser and Jones & Schmidt. So what? As Tennessee Williams once explained, "All works of art...strike echoes of others, [yet] the story is completely your own." This artful story, in which Hollmann's music is seamlessly integrated into the hilarious libretto by Greg Kotis (who shares a credit for the lyrics) is a happy reminder that regardless of how unlikely your material, craft will out.
The Rep production is a stunner. Let's hope it's not too similar to the Broadway version: Last week, in an act of incredibly foolish (and chilling) myopia, the Broadway producers threatened to sue anyone who emulates the original staging. But putting any "purely coincidental" similarities aside, director Rob Ruggiero has managed to finesse an evening that captures the tale's mocking tone while still conveying a sense of utter conviction. He is wonderfully aided by Ralph D. Perkins' springboard choreography, which exploits the Grandel stage to keen advantage. Under the baton of F. Wade Russo, the five-piece orchestra plays the hell out of the score. Peter Sargent wants us to think that his lighting is also Brechtian severe, with stark wall shadows. But in fact the lighting plot is fluid beyond the eye's power to fully comprehend.
The fiercely disciplined cast resembles a titanium chain without a single weak link. Among the principals, Joneal Joplin's villainous Caldwell B. Cladwell, well clad in top hat and furs (drolly designed by costumer Anne Kenney), resembles the figure on a Monopoly Chance card come to life. Jayne Paterson makes his incredulous daughter Hope seem credible and endearing; Zoe Vonder Haar displays heretofore unseen depth as the mistress of Public Amenity #9. Steve Isom and Sandie Rosa are the evening's odd couple. He is pitch-perfect as the menacingly lugubrious Officer Lockstock; she is delightfully ingenuous as Little Sally, who offers the only objective perspective on this hopeless world. As the leader of the revolution, Ben Nordstrom once again displays his innate gift for being able to command a stage in the most modest way. Nordstrom was born to be in musicals.
This one will be entering the annals of St. Louis theater lore. You have till December 10 to see history in the making.