Bursting with heart, spectacle and rafter-raising vocals
|BoHo Theatre presents|
Review by Catey Sullivan
Boho Theatre’s budget may be small compared to the well-heeled, well-oiled musical theater machines found elsewhere in Chicago, but make no mistake: Their production
of Urinetown packs a mighty punch.
Director Stephen Schellhardt’s staging is bursting with heart, spectacle and harmonious, rafter-raising vocals. There are boffo dance numbers, villains you love to hate and a band of warrior underdogs that’ll send you marching out of the theater with the gusto of Enjolras at the Barricades (who kinda/sorta makes a cameo). Yes, the musical is saddled (by its own admission) with the worst title in the history of musicals. Get over it. Urinetown deserves your love.
Greg Kotis (book and lyrics) and Mark Hollmann (music and lyrics) have filled Urinetown with a steady stream self-referential meta-jokes aimed at the often ridiculous tropes of musical theaterland and the real world that surrounds it. In real life, we haven’t yet reached the point where peeing is the privilege of the monied elite (well, not entirely: Women’s pay toilets are still a thing in many places. A reprehensibly sexist thing).
But overall, these day the unwashed masses can still access plumbing and porcelain with relative ease. That said, squalor is solely a problem of the poor. Asbestos-filled walls, lead-laden water, food deserts – these are health problems that the denizens of gated communities don’t have to deal with for the most part. Urinetown’s story of folk desperate to make bathrooms universally available is both parable and metaphor – as drolly pointed out by Office Lockstock (Scott Danielson) to the precociously inquisitive Little Sally (Ariana Burks).
Schellhardt captures both the satire and the earnestness of Urinetown, delivering a show that’s both hopeful and brutally cynical. This is a classic underdog story, up to a point. There is valiance and triumph of the human spirit, but the fate of the handsome young hero takes a rather splattering detour late in the game. Triumph-of-the-human-spirit is all very well and good, but it will not – in and of itself – stop nightsoil from clogging your kitchen faucet should you live in in a place that lacks a solid plumbing infrastructure.
Most of Urinetown’s witty, winking exposition comes from Officer Lockstock and Little Sally. Danielson and Burks make a marvelous comic duo, with Sally pondering the absurdities of musical theater and Lockstock offering explainers with the kindly, patronizing tone of a Romper Room host.
The non-expository action focuses on Bobby Strong (Henry McGinniss), the idealistic young crusader from the drought-ravaged inner city and on Hope Cladwell (Courtney Mack), the pure-hearted daughter of Urinetown’s evil overlord, Caldwell Cladwell (Donterrio Johnson).
With choreographer Aubrey Adams, Schellhardt makes Urinetown overflow with pizazz. There are artfully deployed jazz hands, all-hands-on-deck tap extravaganzas and a rollicking gospel number that’ll have you yes-lawding even if you’re a Druid. The cast nails the joyousness, the silliness and the grimey undertones embedded in Urinetown. And zounds but this ensemble can sing.
Molly Kral sets the bar high with “It’s a Privilege to Pee,” delivering a belt that’ll make your bones vibrate. She’s ferocious as the warden of all toilets, enforcing Cladwell’s no-fee-no-pee laws with draconian verve.
McGinniss’ Bobby Strong is a hero of the Underdog-meets-Spartacus variety, a hero who compensates for a less-than-razor-sharp-intellect with an abundance of unswerving enthusiasm for his cause. Backed by a full-throttle ensemble, Strong’s “Run, Freedom Run” is a hallelujah showstopper that calls to mind the group ecstasy of an old time tent revival.
The other song-and-dance high point is “Cop Song,” led with Danielson’s Officer Lockstock and Tommy Bullington’s Officer Barrel. The song calls for both lightning-footed dance moves and Harold Hill levels of crisis mongering – but if Hill were a jackbooted nimcompoop rather than a flimflam man in love. Bullington and Danielson have fleet feet, booming vocals and a grand sense of over-the-top nefariousness. Perhaps needless to say, they ace the number.
As the ingenue Hope, Mack radiates loveliness and innocence, with just enough sappiness to give the character an edge of parody. When she plunges into “Listen to Your Heart,” it’s with an earnestness and a silvery soprano that make the notes soar and reveal the Hallmark-card-on-steroids sentimentality of the lyrics. As Hope’s nefarious father Caldwell Cladwell, Johnson make for an aptly gimlet-eyed villain intent on flushing out subversives.
The cast is backed by conductor Charlotte Rivard-Hoster’s terrific band, an ensemble that does the score justice and strikes a darn near perfect balance with the vocals. Tony Churchill’s scenic design makes a fittingly disgusting wasteland filled with, garbage and crusty-looking fixtures. Costume designer Elizabeth Wislar makes the stark contrast in Urinetown demographics crystal clear. The poor are clad in in a hodge-podge of ratty, stain-darkened garments. The ruling elite wear crisp suits with clean lines and neutral palettes.
This is musical comedy, so it’s no spoiler to note that Bobby Strong will eventually prevail. What happens after he prevails is a plunge into reality rarely found in the likes of the genre’s traditionally sunny storylines.
The ending might be complicated, but the production delivers a strong, inarguable message: Go see it.
Urinetown continues through March 26th at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays 8pm, Sundays 2pm. Tickets are $33-$35, and are available by phone (773-327-5252) or online through Stage773.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at BoHoTheatre.com. (Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Katie Long
Tommy Bullington (Officer Barrel), Ariana Burks (Little Sally), Scott Danielson (Office Lockstock), Nick Graffagna (Little Tommy, Dr. Billeaux), Donterrio Johnson (Caldwell Cladwell), Molly Kral (Penelope Pennywise), Courtney Mack (Hope Cladwell), Henry McGinniss (Bobby Strong), Sara Reinecke (Soupy Sue), Peter Robel (Senator Fipp), Jonathan Schwart (Mr. McQueen), Desiree Staples (Josephine Strong), Demi Zaino (Little Becky Two Shoes, Mrs. Millennium).
Charlotte Rivard-Hoster (keyboard, conductor), Ethan Deppe (percussion), Anthony Rodriguez (reeds), Joe Pascarello (trombone, euphonium), Jackson Kidder (bass).
behind the scenes
Stephen Schellhardt (director), Charlotte Rivard-Hoster (music director), Aubrey Adams (choreography), Tony Churchill (scenic design), Natasza Naczas (props), G. Max Maxin IV (lighting design), Elizabeth Wislar (costume design), Dan Plehal (assistant director, movement director), Dalton Long (stage manager). Lindsay Brown (production manager), Meg Love (producer), Katie Long (photos)