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Yellow Peril

Born on the Fringe and weaned Off Broadway, Urinetown recalls thirties agitprop -- but whether as homage or spoof is nearly impossible to discern.

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When Greg Kotis, co-author with Mark Hollmann of Urinetown, the Musical, found himself down and out in Paris and unable to afford a public toilet, he conceived the idea for this show. In it, the population of a city is compelled by law to urinate in "public amenities," the fee going to the private Urine Good Corporation, headed by the ruthless capitalist Caldwell B. Cladwell. The excuse is a prolonged drought and water shortage, and anyone caught by the ferocious police force relieving himself in the bushes will be sent for draconian punishment to a place called Urinetown. There are long lines at the amenities, with many of the queuers unable to pay but hoping for a gratis pee.

Fantasies are fine as long as they have an inner logic and a compelling symbolic value. Here, absolutely nothing makes sense, and self-contradictions proliferate like bunny rabbits, to which Cladwell, who manipulates both the legislature and the police, compares the poor in the show's best song. We can suspend disbelief when the puritanical Deputy in Measure for Measure makes fornication a capital offense, or when Peter Pan teaches the children to fly, i.e., escape in dreams parental authority. But controlling urination -- with defecation slurred over in a single line of a single lyric -- makes no sense even on the fantasy level. Especially not when the police force is run by the dreaded Officer Lockstock, who is also the comic narrator making sophomoric jokes about musical comedy (in whose silliness he implicates both the show's creators and its audience).

So much for Kotis's book. Hollmann's music is parody, mostly of Brecht-Weill's Mahagonny and Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock -- sometimes more copy than spoof -- but comprising also faux gospel, faux Sondheim, faux Les Miz, and faux whatever. The Hollmann-Kotis lyrics have a die-hard whimsicality that would do credit to a frat show, which Urinetown basically is.

The romantic subplot involves Bobby Strong, the reluctant assistant to the pitiless Penelope Pennywise, supervisor of Amenity No. 9, described as "the poorest, filthiest urinal in town," and Hope Cladwell, the nabob's daughter fresh from college, soon to be taken hostage by the insurgent poor, led by Bobby. How these poor nearly hang her while Bobby, trying to negotiate with Cladwell, is instead captured and sent off to Urinetown, whence no one returns, is for you to find out, should you still have the desire to do so.

The originality of Urinetown, if it has any, lies in the equal contempt for the rich and the poor, and in what would be a tragic ending if persiflage could yield pathos. But if anything makes a show ridiculous rather than entertaining, it is an anything-goes attitude: The thrown-in kitchen sink always lands with a thud. Yet the audience with whom I earlier viewed this show Off Broadway (to which it had been elevated after its premiere in the Fringe Festival) was lapping it up, as was the Broadway one at a late preview. Mencken was right to comment about the American public's lack of intelligence proving all too profitable; its lack of good taste should pay off nearly as well as a pee-fee.

John Carrafa's choreography is similarly pan-parodic, and John Rando has directed with random cleverness. The acting is perfectly geared to the campy material, with John Cullum (Cladwell), Nancy Opel (Pennywise), and Jeff McCarthy (Lockstock) the happiest campers. Hunter Foster and Jennifer Laura Thompson are dedicatedly ludicrous lovers, and Spencer Kayden, as orphaned Little Sally, plays this ersatz Annie as if -- to quote the show's favorite platitude -- there were no tomorrow. Part of Urinetown is indeed Annie with no "Tomorrow," but most of it is Mahagonny with far too much alienation effect.

Urinetown
New musical on Broadway at the Henry Miller Theater.


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