In the dystopian future, a severe water shortage causes private bathrooms to be outlawed. Everyone in the University of Maine’s production of “Urinetown” must line up at a government-run, privately owned facility and pay to pee.
What can the downtrodden, bladder-bursting masses do about such an injustice? Why, burst into song, of course, and tell the tales of an uprising, a lovestruck couple of kids from opposite sides of the track and a lesson hard learned by a child, all in two acts and 11 show stopping but forgettable tunes.
“Urinetown,” written by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman in the late 1990s, can’t seem to decide what it wants to make fun of — politics, big business or Broadway. Unfortunately, director Tom Mikotowicz, a UMaine professor of theater, couldn’t seem to decide either, so the production’s intended satire of something and perhaps everything is toothless. Its spoofs of production numbers in classic musicals, including “Les Miserables,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and even “West Side Story” are far more successful.
It doesn’t really matter what the theme of the show was supposed to be because by the middle of Act One the talented ensemble cast makes the theatergoers forget there might be a point or three to the script and convinces them to have as much fun as they’re obviously having on stage.
“Urinetown” is the story of Bobby Strong, a lowly employee of the Urine Good Co., (get it?) which owns all the city’s bathroom facilities. He falls for Hope Cladwell not knowing she is the daughter of Caldwell B. Cladwell, the firm’s tyrannical owner.
After Bobby’s father is disappeared to Urinetown, the place from which the musical take its title, for the the crime of peeing in public, he strongly leads an uprising, which has a serious impact on his romance with Hope. Commenting on the action and moving the story along are police Officer Lockstock and Little Sally, the child he mentors and occasionally gives pennies to so she can pee.
Nathan William Reeves, a second-year theater student from Old Town, should not be as convincing in the role of Bobby Strong as he is. He’s too scrawny and skinny to be a leading man in any traditional musical, but he sure does sing like one in “Urinetown.”
Reeves wears Bobby’s sincerity on his leather apron. He makes everyone, onstage and off, believe he can win the cause and the girl while making the world a better place. Reeves, who appeared last year in UMaine’s fine production of “A Cherry Orchard,” is as talented as he is charismatic. His ability to inhabit a role makes him a young actor worth watching.
Isabelle Etro as Hope Cladwell sings like she was born for musical theater. The second-year student from Eliot has a broad musical range, and she can switch from brassy to sweet soprano in an instant. Her Hope is a two-dimensional caricature of the dutiful daughter led astray by love until she sings. That’s when Etro gives Hope depth and fully inhabits the role.
Alan Estes also is cast against type as Caldwell B. Cladwell, but he manages to bring out the evil in the mogul’s soul by emphasizing his shifty nature. The wiry Estes, a third-year theater student, is aided greatly by a fantastic double-breasted black suit with red pinstripes. Cladwell’s red shirt makes the stripes stand out, but it’s those red spats that symbolize Cladwell’s empty heart.
As Officer Lockstock and Little Sally, Forrest Tripp, a third-year student from Saco studying mechanical engineering, and Nellie Kelly, who graduated last year with a degree in theater, are natural and delightful together. Their comic timing is impeccable and they, more than any other cast members, are able to portray the satire the show’s writers intended.
The technical team of Daniel Bilodeau, set designer; Jonathan Spencer, lighting designer; and Kevin Koski, costume designer, had a singular vision for the look and feel of the show that has been executed more finely and clearly as it is in “Urinetown” than it has been in other university productions. As he did for Estes, Koski gave every actor clothes, which helped define his or her character for the audience.
Music director Ben McNaboe got excellent vocal performances out of every cast member. The large chorus performed songs as the mob it was intended to be but the choral work was especially good in the Act One Finale and “Run Freedom Run.”
Choreographer Raymond Marc Dumont, who has works often with the Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick, accomplished what few have been able to do at UMaine before — turned a large cast of fine singers and performers into more than passable dancers. It couldn’t have been easy.
In the end, the fine performances in “Urinetown,” along with the set, lights and costumes, overcome the weaknesses in the script and the director’s muddy vision for the show. It’s not, as Officer Lockstock tells Little Sally, a “happy musical,” but it is a cistern full of fun.
“Urinetown” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday at Hauck Auditorium. Tickets are $15 or free with a student ID. For information, call 581-4703 or visit https://umaine.edu/spa/tickets/.