Urinetown - Henry Miller's Theatre on Broadway - Wednesday, August 29, 2001

Given the controversy caused by my official review of Urinetown, I must confess I'm not entirely sure what would be appropriate for me to say here after seeing the show again, this time on Broadway. Reviewing my original review was something of an education, both in terms of perception and how my vision has changed in the almost four months since I first saw this musical Off-Broadway. However, as the goal of these reviews is to chronicle my theatregoing life, I believe it's appropriate to lock down a stronger, more complex view of the show.

Sitting in the mezzanine of Henry Miller's Theatre, I was reminded again of everything that bothered me about Urinetown the first time. Whatever else you may hear about it, it is, at its essence, a one-joke show. A drought-stricken future where urination is no longer free. In any other show, the response from the audience would rightly be, "Ha ha, we get it, on to the next joke." The problem, of course, is that next joke never comes. At least not really, not truthfully, and that's really at the core of the problem I have with Urinetown.

The show's creators have, in interviews, expressed their distaste and displeasure with the medium of musical theatre. This begs the question, then: Why bother writing for it? There are a lot of composers out there, probably far more talented than Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis, who would kill for a chance to have their show on Broadway. Were the creators able to mask their distaste and just "go on with the show," as it were, perhaps that would be acceptable. But no, they see fit to make their displeasure with the form an integral part of the work. Yet, in the very same two-and-a-quarter-hour span, they see fit to attempt to steal from the honest, intense work of Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, and Mark Blitzstein, to say nothing of the great directors and choreographers of the past whose work is... shall we say... sampled throughout the show. The messages are confusing--are we supposed to love musical theatre or hate it? How do the creators feel?

My response is: Who cares? I sure don't. I love musical theatre, and I'll shout it to the hills any day of the week. That's why it hurts me--almost physically--to see revolting displays like the inane choreography of "Snuff That Girl," which is a mixture of Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, and several others I can't at the moment recall. But the choreography has no intrinsic reason for existing. It's there simply to be there, it exists to make jokes for the audience. Do the characters need to dance that way? Heck, in that number, do the characters need to dance at all? Of course not. But, since only a few minutes earlier the same characters were partner-dancing in the "What is Urinetown?" number, perhaps it's only fair to conclude that the choreographer didn't really have a clue what the show was about. Or maybe, like the composers, he just didn't care. It's a fine line.

I must say, though, that I was mostly alone in my extreme discomfort and outrage for the goings on, both in the Broadway production and the original Off-Broadway one. The show is capable of inducing convulsions of laughter in people left and right. I didn't laugh once this time. Not once. I can't remember if I laughed the first time--maybe once--but half smiles were about the best I could manage this time through. It's not that I didn't get the references (as some people suggested when my Off-Broadway review was published), it's simply that I didn't care. I expect better from parody. I expect parody to be clear, concise, have a real target, and, above all, be truthful. If comedy does not have a truthful base, it simply isn't funny. Hence, I couldn't laugh at what was happening in Urinetown. Oh, I'll agree it's an interesting premise for a story, even a musical--it could be easily made to sing. But there's a difference between letting the material sing and forcing songs onto it. I'll give you one guess as to which road the creators of Urinetown took.

The best part about Urinetown, I suppose, is the cast. Spencer Kayden is unavoidably funny as the waifish Little Sally. John Cullum brings rich authority to his role (even if he seemed to be having difficulty with lines at this performance), Nancy Opel's belt is stunning, even about 20 years after Evita, and the voices of all the cast are good. Jeff McCarthy did less for me this time. His Officer Lockstock seemed more believable then--now, he is so campy, his performance so unnecessarily big and pointlessly detailed with unfunny minutae, that there's no sense of a real character there. I liked Hunter Foster more before, too, and he seems to be suffering from the same problem. Jennifer Laura Thompson does sing very well, and has an attractive innocence, but doesn't seem to have the firm grasp on the comedy that everyone else does. Perhaps she's trying to take the show seriously? That's an unfortunate mistake when no one else--especially the creators--do. Oh well. Since the amplification is so sloppily done, it's not like you can make out much of what the performers are singing anyway.

I can't see Urinetown running very long--it has no audience, little possibility for group or family sales, and so far, its ad campaign has been pathetic. Who knows, though, what the other few hundred people there last night will tell their friends. They seemed to love it. To me, that's what's far more troubling than Urinetown itself: that the show is capable of fooling people into believing it's thoughtful and intelligent rather than the derivative, boring, and far too self-referential production it is. Urinetown could take lessons from The Producers in how to structure a completely fluffy, meaningless musical comedy designed solely for the purpose of entertainment. Actually, the creators of Urinetown would do best to examine more closely the shows they so despise, then learn how to parody them correctly. When that happens, perhaps their next venture will be worthwhile. Urinetown is not.

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