John Cullum in Urinetown(Photo: Joan Marcus)
John Cullum in Urinetown
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Urinetown smells like a hit! As you probably know, the show has moved from Off-Broadway to Broadway following its initial production at the 1999 New York International Fringe Festival; it's now playing at The Henry Miller, where it opened last night with the cast of its recent Off-Broadway run at the ATA Theatre nearly intact. Despite its title, it has great potential for success as an innovative and amusing--albeit offbeat--musical about a town whose downtrodden residents must pay to relieve their bladders.

In its ATA incarnation, the show--with music by Mark Hollmann, book by Greg Kotis, and lyrics by both--still had the air of an underground cult happening. It seemed feverishly well intentioned, but I also wished that its promise had been more fully realized. Now, at the Henry Miller, Urinetown has a much more polished feel, though it hasn't lost any of its irreverence or its over-the-top style. This show is a carefully balanced and very well-directed high wire act that keeps several balls spinning and twirling in the air simultaneously, thanks to the facility of director John Rando and the genius of John Carrafa, who has staged the musical numbers. There's more of an edge to Urinetown now, and an even more pronounced comic-book sensibility.

The hard-working ensemble cast sings and dances up a storm, with the final bow going to John Cullum, a Broadway veteran (Shenandoah, On the Twentieth Century) well known for his TV turn on Northern Exposure. His vocal chops are intact and the twinkle in his eye makes the dastardly cartoon villain Caldwell B. Cladwell a joy to behold in action; this well-written character allows Cullum to exude charm in his every moment on stage. Another standout in the cast is Jeff McCarthy, hilarious as Officer Lockstock (the tongue-in-cheek narrator of the piece).

The physical characteristics of the dusky Henry Miller suit the material very nicely--with more than a little help from Scott Pask, who is appropriately credited not for set design but for "scenic/environment design." (Be sure to look up at the ceiling of the theater just before the show starts.) Though the show's off-stage instrumental ensemble sounds at first like a Kurt Weillesque pit band, these folks eventually crank out music in an array of styles ranging from gospel to jazz, all with a buoyant energy. It should be noted that several of Urinetown's numbers have very elaborate choral sections; bravo to musical director Edward Strauss and conductor Ed Goldschneider for their contributions to the success of the performance.

Jeff McCarthy (center) and company in Urinetown(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Jeff McCarthy (center) and company in Urinetown
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
John Carrafa's musical staging is so clever and on-the-money that it almost steals the show. Somehow, Carrafa satirizes and glorifies the choreography of classic musicals at the same time. With nods to Fiddler on the Roof and even more frequent nods to West Side Story, his work creates a heightened reality that draws you to the quirky epicenter of an alternate universe. Urinetown manages to keep you off-balance but comfortably entertained as it simultaneously embraces and spoofs musical theater clichés.

The move to a Broadway house represents a bit of a trade-off for the show. While it seems much more evenly paced overall, certain performances that were standouts Off-Broadway are now slightly subdued. Still, the cast members seem to be having a swell time. For the most part, they give themselves over to their roles so wholeheartedly that the show stands more securely than ever on its broadly stylized legs. Not to be ignored is Spencer Kayden who, as the "naïve" Little Sally, displays excellent comic timing--perhaps born of her experience in improvisational ensembles. Also worthy of special praise are Nancy Opel as Penelope Pennywise (an enforcer of the "pay to pee" edict) and Hunter Foster and Jennifer Laura Thompson as the musical's romantic leads.

What this show is about is really beside the point; Urinetown proves that good writing and excellent performances can make any subject smell like a million bucks.