A well executed production, “Urinetown” lacks a well delivered message

Nimya+Harris+sings+in+the++spotlight+during+her+character%27s+solo+number.+Harris+is+praised+for+her+performance+as+Penelope+Pennywise%2C+along+with+all+of+the+acting+in+the+show.

courtesy Jaaron Langford

Nimya Harris sings in the spotlight during her character's solo number. Harris is praised for her performance as Penelope Pennywise, along with all of the acting in the show.

Shorewood Drama’s production of Urinetown, which ran from January 30 to February 1, was yet another interesting and lively musical in Shorewood’s long line of excellent shows.

The musical tells the story of a society in the near future where, due to a water shortage from a twenty-year drought and the corporate greed of the Urine Good Company, people must pay each time they need to use the restroom. Poverty is rampant, so the fee is a major issue for most; however, anyone who refuses to use the restrooms is exiled for life to a mysterious and terrifying place called Urinetown. After Bobby Strong’s father is carted off to Urinetown for urinating on the ground, Strong falls in love with the daughter of Urine Good Company’s CEO, Hope Cladwell, and subsequently starts a revolution, taking over the bathrooms, removing the fees and eventually taking Hope as a hostage.

The casting for Shorewood’s production was impeccable. Though I believe all the actors were exceptional, I especially appreciated some of the actors’ performances. Janiya Carter was perfect as Little Sally; she portrayed the mannerisms and voice of a little girl very well. For the character of Hope Cladwell, only a very small range of voices would suffice to portray the airheaded “daddy’s little girl”, and Maddie Beeghly definitely hit that range with her depiction. Jaron Tsuchiyama and Sophia Diliberti were clearly very engaged in their dancing roles and brought vivacity to the dance numbers. Nimya Harris’s singing was superb for the part of Penelope Pennywise. I honestly could go on for a while with this list.

The set was a pleasure to look at. The tech crew made use of every available space both horizontally and vertically with multiple levels and settings. The glowing, old-timey “Urinetown” city sign and the bathroom tile mounds/stairs in the orchestra pit were also nice touches. 

The set was a pleasure to look at. The tech crew made use of every available space both horizontally and vertically with multiple levels and settings.”

The choreography was another excellent aspect of the show. Well-coordinated flickering flashlights in the dark for the “Cop Song” made for a very visually appealing scene. The spoof of the bottle dance from Fiddler on the Roof but with plungers instead of bottles was a fun twist.

There were however a few blips in the performance. The night I went, it seemed there were sound issues in the first act. More than a few times, it was hard to hear the actors – even with body mics on – and the music wasn’t loud enough for my taste; it was a bit subdued. But after intermission there was a noticeable shift in sound quality, allowing the actors’ voices and the music to be properly projected.

Though I enjoyed what Shorewood brought to the performance, I have reservations concerning the story itself. I know the story employs caricature characters as satire, but the characters are so one-dimensional that none of them are very likeable at all. The first act definitely dragged at times; I knew I was going to a play called Urinetown, but the constant fixation on urination began to grate on me after a while. Officer Lockstock treats the word “musical” like it’s a mantra. Grates like cheese.

Though I enjoyed what Shorewood brought to the performance, I have reservations concerning the story itself.”

One of my main issues is that Urinetown is yet another piece of media that serves as an indictment of the audience and humanity in general. People seem to see statements which boil down to “things are bad” as deep. Profound. As if no one has said these things before. Statements of “humans are bad” are met with wise, pensive nods. Wow – things are bad? People aren’t nice? No kidding.

“Why do you say that, Little Sally? Don’t you think people want to be told that their way of life is unsustainable?” Lockstock says at the end of the show when Sally tells him she doesn’t think people will want to see it. And this, folks, is a perfect example of the show’s trademark self-awareness.

An assertion of self-awareness is often used to make a claim more credible. It makes audiences perhaps more inclined to accept things, realizing that the creators must be serious about their message if they anticipate what the audience is thinking, acknowledge their own faults and still project the message anyway. The effect of the self-awareness in the play boils down to “I know you think I’m preachy and too obvious because I am being preachy and too obvious. Regardless, I think my message is important enough to say anyway.” This sort of thing sticks with us because it catches us off-guard. 

But I think the play’s self-awareness is mainly used as a shield. If we make fun of ourselves, it’s not new or interesting for someone else to make the observation. However, Urinetown’s self-awareness is not enough to shield the play from my criticism. Again, just saying things are bad and people are bad isn’t something new or even really helpful if you just say it and then leave.

But I think the play’s self-awareness is mainly used as a shield. If we make fun of ourselves, it’s not new or interesting for someone else to make the observation.”

Maybe the playwright noticed that there were too many subtle works out there carrying the same message but failing to get through. Nothing seemed to be sticking, so maybe delivering the message in this self-aware frame would work.

It seems the play is trying to get us to prevent overpopulation, but the tone distracts from this message. The characters are oblivious and act like they cheerfully accept their doom. Leaving the show, I felt like someone with a big smile just told me, “We’re all going to die, you idiots!” (Honestly, with the tone of the play, I’m surprised that no one delivered that exact line.) By the end, there is literally no Hope – she’s dead. The cast members sing that their town has always actually been Urinetown; it is a place of death. They yell “Hail, Malthus!”, referring to a man that predicted that overpopulation would ravage the Earth’s resources. Yikes.

Maybe the playwright included an unsatisfying ending so that it stuck with the audience. If that is the case, the way the message is delivered is still a bit irritating. The characters’ sarcastic self-aware comments feel a bit condescending at times, as if we couldn’t pick out the messages for ourselves.

Overall, Shorewood’s production was engaging and well executed. Of the musical in general, go see a production if you like zany humor and don’t mind the smug self-awareness that permeates the play. Though somewhat lacking in a compelling plot, there are definitely at least a few genuinely funny comedic moments (but maybe that’s thanks to the direction at Shorewood). I dislike that Urinetown casts life as meaningless and doom as inescapable, and I dislike that it does so in an annoying way. I am inclined to disagree, giving me a bias against the show. And with all of these “the end is nigh!” messages out there, there is a disproportionately small amount of solutions. And solutions are what I am looking for. 

But to put it in the words of Lockstock: “Aren’t we all, Little Sally. Aren’t we all.”