by Byron Woods
Theatre Raleigh/Hot Summer Nights
Through Aug. 11
Theatre Raleigh’s checkered 2013 season has featured some of the best—and worst—work on regional stages this year. It’s a relief, therefore, to report that Wednesday night’s performance of the acerbic 2001 musical URINETOWN represented a nimble, artistic 180-degree turn back into fair territory.
A couple of student groups have tackled this savvy, self-aware satire which manages to send up corporate corruption and politics as usual—and idealism, populism and a host of sappy musical theater conventions—after Raleigh Little Theatre’s regional premiere of the work in 2007. But no one’s done it better than this sure-footed production which, as one of the company’s two single-week engagements in Fletcher Opera Theater this season, closes far too soon, on Saturday.
No, the phrase "dystopian romp" doesn't come up very often in the critical lexicon. But URINETOWN is one; its deft, self-reflexive touches (and string of unforgivable puns) plumb the depths, as it were, of a world where private toilets have been banned due to water shortages, and people are forced to pay a fee each and every time they have to go number one.
Trust me; it's a lot funnier than it sounds. Director Richard Roland eggs on a canny, top-flight cast to dig into the stockiest of stock characters—including walking expositional devices like Officer Lockstock (a fine David Hess) and budding dramaturg (or theater critic?) Little Sally, played by a rewarding, bug-eyed Rachael Moser—who populate this hard-boiled city without pity. In a plot ripped from The Cradle Will Rock, a monolithic company helmed by the ruthless Caldwell B. Cladwell (Raymond Sage, in a memorable performance) uses its paid stooge in the legislature (Jade Arnold's evangelical Senator Fipp) and the police to drain the downtrodden masses of their last pennies and dimes.
All hope seems lost—go know—until Bobby Strong (Brennan Caldwell), a scrappy assistant janitor in the grimiest public amenity in town, stands up to all of them. Can a single, proverbial clean-cut kid spark a popular revolution, upend the power structure, save the day, and get the girl—Cladwell's beautiful and blindly idealistic daughter, Hope (an accomplished, comic Cameron Caudill)?
Are you kidding?
It actually gives little of the game away to reveal that the answer is: Sort of. Kinda. Call it three out of four—plus or minus change—which isn't a bad way to end up. (Unless, of course, it actually is.)
Officer Lockstock keeps reminding us and Little Sally that this is not a happy musical—though under Julie Bradley's musical direction, Mark Hollmann's score repeatedly lights up like a pinball machine. Bradley's five-piece orchestra and the talented cast are flawless on jazz-inspired numbers like "Snuff That Girl," addled gospel-tinged raves like "Run, Freedom, Run," a first-act rap tribute to advanced law enforcement, "Cop Song," and a romantic stemwinder—which director Roland has supporting characters checking their watches and bemusedly taking five throughout—in the reprise of Caudill's lovely, loopy "Follow Your Heart."
Strong supporting work by Courtney Balan and Maigan Kennedy adds savor to numbers including "What Is Urinetown" and "Why Did I Trust That Man?" And Lauren Kennedy's choreographic big-show quotes and cliches (including a silly synchronized file folder routine in the number "Mr. Cladwell") only increases the mirth. In Denise Schumaker's droll costume designs, tasteful ensembles fairly drip with yellow highlights across stage.
Our obvious recommendation for this knowing pistiche boils down to three little words: You gotta go!