Don't get us wrong; The Producers is a stunning work of satiric genius. Bat Boy is a wonderfully batty fairy tale. One needn't knock the competition in order to extol the virtues of a truly inspired piece such as Urinetown, which does what musical theater does best: It makes its impact not with a budget, but with imagination. The alchemy of talented performers combined with witty songs and sensational stagecraft turns a repulsively titled show into an unforgettable hit.
The Urinetown experience begins the minute you enter the American Theatre of Actors on West 54th Street. You walk up a winding staircase lined with (what else?) white bathroom tiles. On the second floor, you enter a surprisingly modern theater with raked seating that holds 131 people. The playing space is expansive, with a metal walkway above that hugs the wall over the stage and extends around either side of the audience. Prison-like spotlights sweep the space--and, sure enough, cops are soon seen escorting a bereft-looking young man in a Depression-era jacket and cap across the walkway. A spotlight follows them as they clank along until the prisoner is ordered to climb down a metal ladder to the stage below. Then he removes his cap, sits down at a piano, and takes over his job as conductor of the Urinetown orchestra. With that bit of opening brilliance, director John Rando immediately establishes the show's self-aware attitude, and the audience is primed for anything.
What we get is everything. Out comes Officer Lockstock (Jeff McCarthy), who is both a character in the show and our narrator. He explains what we're about to see in musical theater terms, and it's a scream. In fact, it's a lot like the Scream horror movies that use our shared knowledge of the genre both to plot their stories and to garner laughs. Throughout the show, Lockstock and a poor, dirty-faced waif called Little Sally (Spencer Kayden) comment upon Urinetown (including their thoughts about the title) and their places within the story (the book of the show is by Greg Kotis).
The show is set sometime in the not-too-distant-future. Because there has been a terrible drought, there isn't enough water to flush toilets; so, in order to protect what's left of the groundwater, controls have been placed upon the public. People have to pay to urinate. If they empty their bladders anywhere except prescribed places, they will be sent to Urinetown, whence no one has ever returned. Corruption is the order of the day. And the most corrupt of all is, of course, the man who controls the urinary spigot: Caldwell B. Cladwell (John Cullum), whose innocent daughter, Hope (Jennifer Laura Thompson), just so happens to fall in love with the rebel leader Bobby Strong (Hunter Foster). Suffice it to say that the plot is reminiscent of Marc Blitzstein's Cradle Will Rock combined with elements of Brechtian parody. It's accented by a hilarious send-up of a Bob Fosse musical number, a riff on West Side Story, and plenty of other inside jokes that outsiders need not know in order to enjoy.
Urinetown is a dark comedy with the courage of its convictions. There are insidiously funny numbers like the dead-on metaphorical tune "Don't Be the Bunny," in which Hope Cladwell is warned that the rabbit is always devoured by wolves. Later, when the rebels get their angry hands on Hope, they sing with sinister jubilation "Snuff that Girl." Mind you, the show contains love songs and anthems aplenty, each with a cockeyed sense of humor. Mark Hollmann's music has drive and spunk, and virtually all of it displays its roots in musical theater rather than rock (thank God). Greg Kotis' lyrics are consistently smart, with intricate rhymes that constantly surprise and delight.
The cast is excellent. McCarthy has just the right sense of a wink coupled with feral danger to make his Officer Lockstock an engaging villain. Kayden, as Little Sally, gets the show's biggest laughs with her dry comic delivery and winning voice. Cullum gives a magnificently evil performance as the ultimate villain, while Thompson is a delicious ingenue who can sing and do comedy. Foster sings heroically as our hero. Nancy Opel, as a businesswoman with a secret, has a show-stopping number in the first act; Ken Jennings is simply ferocious in a dual role. There isn't a weak link in the entire lot.
Nor is there anything lacking in the staging. The set design by Scott Pask consists of little more than a tile wall on wheels, a metal staircase also on wheels, a desk and chair, and the aforementioned metal walkway above the stage. John Carrafa has come up with some inventive musical staging, while Brian MacDevitt has provided the atmospheric lighting. Jonathan Bixby and Gregory Galle teamed up to design the striking costumes, while Jeff Curtis should receive a medal for sound that seems fully natural. Finally, Rando's direction is flawless; the pace is breathless and there isn't a comic opportunity missed (except, perhaps, the idea of charging patrons a fee for using the bathrooms during intermission).
Urinetown arrives at the very end of the theater season, apparently from out of nowhere. Well, almost out of nowhere; it was first presented as part of the 1999 New York International Fringe Festival. But it's not on the fringe anymore. The show received nine Drama Desk Award nominations, every one of them deserved. Given a chance, Urinetown might well become--you'll excuse the expression--an American Standard.