Urinetown, the Musical is an odd bird. The plot is ridiculous, the characters are cardboard cutouts of stereotypes, the book relies on puns and cheap jokes, and characters comment on these faults while the show is in progress. It should be popcorn theater, the sort of show you forget before you get to your car. And yet hidden just under these superficial trappings of this Stray Dog Theatre production is a sharp barb that pricks at your conscience for several days.
Co-directors Justin Been and Gary F. Bell take this ridiculous story line — about a dystopian future in which a decades-long drought has resulted in laws dictating that all toilets are pay toilets — and play up every element of artificiality to marvelous effect. The acting is willfully broad and the characters' meta commentary is laid on thickly, and no, that's not griping. Urinetown is a Punch and Judy show without the subtlety — and as in good ol' Punch, every brickbat is delivered with gob-smacking accuracy by every member of a phenomenally strong ensemble.
Take our nominal hero and his love interest, Bobby Strong (Antonio Rodriguez) and Hope Cladwell (Jennifer M. Theby). He's a goodhearted young man spurred to action after his father (Ryan Cooper) is condemned to the gulags of Urinetown for peeing on the street, and she's a goodhearted-but-dim rich girl who understands less about the real world than Bobby does. Bobby is despondent over his father's plight until he meets Hope, whose empty-headed platitudes about following one's heart and believing in the goodness of everyone convince him the time is right to storm the pissoir in the name of the people. It's a tidy conceit, and it falls apart once everyone actually gets their free tinkle — now what? Bobby can't satisfy the individual needs of the people beyond staging the riot; if you see parallels to the Occupy Wall Street movement, you're supposed to. (This is an example of what we critics like to call prescience — Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis ginned up Urinetown around the turn of this century, long before bailouts and foreclosures hogged the nation's headlines.)
Fittingly, our villain, Caldwell B. Cladwell (Christopher R. Brenner), is the sort of robber baron Goldman Sachs would love to hire. As the head of Urine Good Company, the monopoly that controls the pay-toilet concession, Cladwell has the government in his pocket, allowing him to game the legal system so he can get even richer. He's also the only one holding society together. Sure, money is his top priority, but he can't make more of it if everyone's dead, so live they must.
And it's Cladwell's vulture-like heroics that are the strangest element of Urinetown. Despite the artifice and abundant comedy, there's no escaping the stench of reality that permeates the show. We bailed out all those companies so society wouldn't collapse — you better believe we'll all pay to use the bathroom if that's what it takes to keep things running. And, yes, that's depressing.
Maybe if we sing a little more, things won't seem so grim?