When I saw Urinetown playing
in Sacramento many years ago, I couldn’t imagine myself ever seeing such
a tacky show. I've come a long way, though, and I have to say that
Roseville Theatre Arts Academy’s production Tony Award-winning musical
was nothing short of spectacular. If it doesn’t garner a bushel of
Ellie nominations, then surely something is wrong with that awards
program. So what made this show such a dazzling success?
One element is star power. Those
with the leading roles blew me away with their singing, their acting,
and how deeply they were into the parts they were playing. Kevin Nelson
as Officer Lockstock was the Narrator, and he simply took command of the
show with his brash manner and big, confident voice. He was a focal
point for much of the show’s humor. Then there was Jake Young as Bobby
Strong. He looked to me like a young Michael Douglas, with the same
charisma, to which was added loads of talent for dancing and singing.
It was watching him when the idea that the show had “star power” came to
mind. But that concept applied to so many others, as well. Amanda
Duisenberg as Penelope Pennywise initially impressed me with her
singing, but she turned out to be such an outstanding villain. And
Julia Hixon was hilarious in her exaggerated portrayal of the naďveté of
Hope Cladwell. To me she was so funny that it was almost surprising
when she displayed such a beautiful voice. Luke Donahue as the evil
Caldwell B. Cladwell was another actor with a fine voice and a good
comic sense. And Miriam Mars was perfect as Little Sally and got some
key laughs. Then there was Jake Romero as Hot Blades Harry. I first
noticed him in one of the dance numbers as the person who moved so
fluidly. But I recognized him as a complete performer when he sang just
a few bars at the end of a scene, and I found myself saying
involuntarily — out loud
— “Broadway voice.” And the person
next to me whispered their agreement.
Now here’s my problem. I want to
call out many of the other actors who played their parts to perfection,
but I didn’t pick up all their stage names so I can’t identify them.
And I don’t want to overlook those in the ensembles. One of the
elements behind this show’s success was the enormous energy that the
whole cast brought to every scene. It was as if there were a Starbuck’s
concession backstage. This commitment of each person to making the most
of their part was evident throughout the show, and was key to the
audience’s involvement: one could scan the stage and always find
something interesting, even far from the principal action. But these
performers displayed more than just energy and commitment. Early on I
was struck with the quality of their singing and their execution of the
complicated and diverse choreography.
There was another element at play.
I noticed early on that the acoustics were particularly good. I’m
thinking of the dialog picked up by the actors’ body mics, and sound man
Ken Duisenberg gets credit there. But I think it went beyond
technology. With microphones so ubiquitous actors seem to be paying
less attention these days to projection and articulation, and mics
notwithstanding, I find myself losing a lot of dialog. Last night, I
thought I perceived special attention to both projection and
articulation. There were lapses, of course, but overall, I got much
more of the dialog than usual, and it made the show much more enjoyable.
A performance like this is greatly
enhanced by a live band, and with Musical Director Jennifer Vaughn at
the piano the 5-piece delivered a thoroughly professional performance.
Still, to my taste, the music in this show is not great; one wouldn’t
want to go out and buy the soundtrack. OK, “Run, Freedom, Run” is one
tune you would leave the theatre humming. Yet all the scenes built
around songs worked very well, and they did so because they were
brilliantly executed. Besides the excellent singing from principals and
ensemble, there was Stephen Hatcher’s choreography. There are stock
moves you can give a cast who aren’t trained as dancers (though some of
these people were obviously trained). But I saw hardly any of those
overused moves. What I saw instead was a constant stream of fresh
choreographic ideas, all well executed by that high-energy cast. And
some of those ideas were screamingly funny. A recurring example of this
was when the choreography borrowed from other well-known musicals. By
the time I’d noticed what was going on, I counted borrowing from Les
Mis, Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story and Annie
— and I bet there were other examples
that I missed. I’d love to describe a couple of these moments, but I
don’t want to spoil your surprise.
The show was self-aware, mostly
through the commentary provided by narrator Lockstock, who often
facetiously pointed out the symbolism of the action. He frequently
reminded us that this was a musical, and his comments were a big part of
the humor. Indeed, the humor was essentially non-stop. For a start,
everything in this show is over-the-top, starting with the title.
There’s a lot of potty humor, but there is so much more that kept the
audience laughing. Fundamentally, Urinetown is a farce, so
nearly every character is grossly exaggerated. But in a way everything
is exaggerated. There are constant sight gags, funny gestures, witty
dialog — and the pace of the action is
almost frenetic. They wrung every possible laugh out of every
To me, all this boils down to
excellent directing. Director Colton Archey wasn’t satisfied with the
obvious way of paying any scene — or
delivering any line, or moving on the stage. And I’m sure his hand was
at work in what is, to me, another criterion of an excellent show: they
showed me things I’ve never seen before.
One final comment. I’m rarely
conscious of lighting effects, but lighting in this production was
noticeably effective and creative, and Dave McCullough and Ian Anderson
deserve a bow of their own.
The opening night audience shared my
enthusiasm for this show with their standing applause and cheers. If
you’re put off by the title, my advice is: get over it. It’s a
wonderfully entertaining production, and if you miss it, you’ll be
missing something really special.