For those of us without much stomach for musical theater, Urinetown is a welcome relief. Hometown heroes Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis have created two and a half tuneful hours that ridicule the creaky, emotionally manipulative conventions of Broadway musicals like Rent and Les Miserables. This grotesque fantasy of capitalist greed run amok—the town suffers such a severe water shortage that the predatory Urine Good Company can charge exorbitantly for the privilege of peeing in their public amenities—is so schematic that even the characters sometimes have a hard time buying it. At one point Little Sally, the stereotypical streetwise urchin, asks Officer Lockstock, the show's Tom Jones-esque narrator, why the shortage hasn't affected things like laundry, irrigation, or hydraulics. "Sometimes, in a musical," he replies, "it's best to focus on one big thing." At the same time, Hollmann and Kotis understand that theatrical archetypes, even those distorted into caricatures, can carry the primal significance of fairy-tale heroes. The love at first sight between poor rebel Bobby Strong and rich ingenue Hope Cladwell may look like a spoof—they sing their great ballad "Follow Your Heart" atop a rolling stair unit for no discernible reason—yet the innocence of the lyrics gives the relationship a real poignancy. In the original Broadway production, director John Rando and choreographer John Carrafa kept sarcasm and sincerity in exquisite balance from start to finish, but they let the touring version veer from one extreme to the other during the first act. In the second, however, things begin to coalesce, and the succession of whip-smart songs, each gently lampooning a different sort of "big number," remind you just how satisfying all-out entertainment can be. As Caldwell B. Cladwell, the evil president of Urine Good Company, the comedically inventive Ron Holgate forgets to give his maniacal character an edge of madness, and Tom Hewitt as Lockstock has a difficult time differentiating between parody and mugging. But as Hope Cladwell, the show's emotional center, the golden-voiced Christiane Noll carries the evening, supported by a chorus of incidental players who expertly spear every style the authors throw at them.
Shubert Theatre, 22 W. Monroe, 312-902-1400. Through December 14: Thursday, 7:30 PM; Friday, 8 PM; Saturday, 2 and 8 PM; Sunday, 2 and 7:30 PM. Then December 16-21: Tuesday, 7:30 PM; Wednesday, 2 and 7:30 PM; Thursday, 7:30 PM; Friday, 8 PM; Saturday, 2 and 8 PM; Sunday, 2 PM. $26-$75.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joan Marcus.