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I'm in Urinetown

Filichia just can't keep it inside any longer: He has to tell you how Urinetown is holding up. logo
Carolee Carmello and the cast of Urinetown
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Many times, when I'm at an opening night or a critics' preview, I see the actors up there working so hard to impress those of us who write reviews. But what happens at a performance that takes place long after the critics have left? Do actors still work as feverishly or do they start to coast on automatic pilot?

At least once a year, I attend a "regular" performance with an audience of John Q. Theatergoers. This year, I decided on Urinetown. I didn't see the show when it premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival in August 1999 but I did catch it in May 2001, when it was ensconced in an Off-Broadway sty, and then revisited it on Broadway on September 10, 2001. That night, we all gave the show a titanic reception and left the theater so happy, unaware that all our lives would dramatically change in less than 11 hours.

I hadn't returned since but was delighted to have the opportunity. Would anyone have predicted that Urinetown would still be on Broadway two-plus years later? That it would have already surpassed the runs of such household name musicals as West Side Story, Gypsy, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Oliver! -- not to mention such Tony-winners as Fiorello!, Company, and (pretty soon) Applause? After all, we are dealing with the disgustingly titled story of Caldwell B. Cladwell, whose Urine Good Company sees to it that citizens are imprisoned (or worse) unless they use his pay-toilets. These johns are well supervised by one Penelope Pennywise. The situation rankles Bobby Strong, who just happens to fall in love with Cladwell's daughter Hope.

Nevertheless, Urinetown is still with us, which has prompted every person connected with every subsequent production at the New York International Fringe Festival to say, "Hey, Urinetown started here, and look what happened to them. We can do it, too!"

But I wasn't going to go easy on Urinetown. I attended a Wednesday evening performance so I could see how much energy the cast would have left after having already done a matinee. The answer: Quite a bit, though I must admit that the rag-tag chorus looked even more rag-tag, possibly because they're two years older. (Well, to quote Officer Lockstock, "Aren't we all, Little Sally, aren't we all?")

I was delighted to see Daniel Marcus still with the company. The actor, who portrays Officer Barrel -- the man with the nightstick he loves to use -- had been injured during a performance last fall and had to leave until he healed. When that happened, Urinetown's Tony-winning director John Rando told me, "It's such a shame because I don't know anyone who loves coming to the theater and performing like Dan." (By the way, if you're surprised that I noticed the actor in this small part, I must confess that I've known Marcus since November 19, 1974, when we met during intermission of The Country Wife at Boston University, where Dan was then a student. The first words I ever heard him say, while his eyes feverishly scanned the lobby, were "Who's that whistling 'Look What Happened to Mabel'?!" I had to admit that it was I.)

Charles Shaughnessy (center),
with (l-r) Lawrence E. Street, James Moye, and
Kristie Dale Sanders in Urinetown
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Carolee Carmello has come in for Nancy Opel and she is worth zillions of pennies as Ms. Pennywise. For one thing, she looks like a cross between the Bride of Frankenstein and Magenta at the end of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (when she shows up with Riff-Raff to take Frank-N-Furter back home). Indeed, this Pennywise appears so crazed that you become sure she doesn't get a discount from the Urine Good Company and must hold it past her breaking point. What Carmello can also hold is a note, and what she brings to the syllable "POL" in "The politicians in their wisdom" -- accompanied by an arched back worthy of a Halloween cat -- must be witnessed by every serious musical theatergoer.

Charles Shaughnessy of TV's The Nanny is now playing Cladwell B. Caldwell and he got entrance applause, which I didn't anticipate. (Frankly, I didn't know who he was because I haven't followed a television series since Alice in the mid-'70s.) Shaughnessy has a true clown's face, moves easily, sings well enough, and is as handsome and slick as John Cullum was in the role. Yet I daresay that what really makes a difference, as silly as it sounds, is his black hair: It really tops off the villain that Cladwell must be.

But the biggest surprise of the night for me was that Jeff McCarthy and Spencer Kayden were back in their respective roles of Officer Lockstock and Little Sally; I had heard that both of them had left but had not heard that they had returned. Kayden -- the only performer to be with the show since its Fringe Festival days -- is giving pretty much the same wide-eyed but dazed (and dazzling) performance I remembered. She's still hilarious when she says the word "exposition" as if she's saying "psoriasis." But McCarthy delivered a much different performance.

Six lines into the title song, I began to worry about him. There's a nice subtle joke in the lyric, "We, we never fail" -- a pun on "wee-wee," of course. Listen to McCarthy on the cast album and you can hear him stress the comma between the "we's." Here, though, he gave a no-pause-at-all "wee-wee." Was he dumbing down the show, figuring that today's audiences aren't as savvy as the ones that came before them and that they wouldn't get the joke unless he hit it hard?

Soon after, something else that McCarthy did struck me as different. During the title song and every one after it, he used his arms and hands to make wave-like moves that I don't believe he did before. (Think of the soft and easy gestures that flight attendants use before a trip to show you where the plane's exits are and you'll get the picture.) Indeed, McCarthy sometimes seemed to be on a surfboard, riding a titanic wave into shore in a body made of rubber. Just as eccentric was his new haircut -- a buzzcut that made each strand of hair look as if it's a gray-dyed porcupine quill. It matched the razor-sharp lie he baldly told Little Sally, which caused an audience member down front to laugh derisively -- prompting McCarthy to spin around and glare at the doubting audience member, who shut up awfully quickly out of what I believe was genuine fear.

Jeff McCarthy and Spencer Kayden
in Urinetown
For the first few scenes, the adjective I decided to use when I wrote about McCarthy's new interpretation was "mellow." Then I concluded that a better one would be "loosey-goosey." Finally, I landed on "mentally unbalanced." But really, doesn't that befit a character who's strictly governed by the Urine Good Company? How long would you hold onto your sanity if you lived under these conditions? Still, the question must be asked: Can an extended stint in Urinetown cause a performer to lose his mind?

Everyone in the cast sings the minor-key Kurt Weill mock-ups in a major way. Luther Creek, the new Bobby Strong, does superbly by the Jones-and-Schmidt-tinged "Look at the Sky" as well as "Follow Your Heart," in which he's joined by a superb Amy Spanger as Hope. I'm only sorry that they won't get to perform these numbers past January -- for, as we've all heard, Urinetown must soon leave Henry Miller's in order to accommodate the construction of a new building, and it has been announced that the show will close rather than move elsewhere. Don't miss it before it shutters; Urinetown continues to have piss and vinegar. It's a privilege to see.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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