Chicago Theater Review: URINETOWN (BoHo Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 13, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


I fondly recall the infectiously brilliant Cardiff Giant shows that Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann perpetrated in the 80s and 90s. After so much success in Chicago, it’s doubly disconcerting that their Big Break came from a show the Windy City never saw, a smash “underground” hit that, in its playful premise, self-aware spoofing, and skewering parodies, is (im)pure Cardiff Giant and its later incarnation as the Upright Citizens Brigade.

Returning from Broadway fame to a happy hometown crowd and an intensely intimate revival by BoHo Theatre, Urinetown, Chicago’s homegrown triple-crown Tony winner, was worth the wait. With a neo-Brechtian plot by Kotis and neo-Weill score by Hollmann, this tongue-in-cheek tribute to underdogs everywhere is narrated by Officer Lockstock (the wonderfully unctuous Scott Danielson). From the start he spills the show’s strategies, such as avoiding any excessive exposition. It works: we all like being taken in. The cop also tells us not to expect a happy ending, perhaps to keep this musical from being confused with any other (certainly what Tolstoy said about unhappy families applies to unhappy endings—they’re all dramatically different).

The assiduous constable introduces us to an unnamed town without pity, where years of drought have driven up the cost of water and made public lavatories into private gold mines (“It’s a Privilege to Pee”). Always raising the rates to use the johns, the Urine Good Company is forcing the poor to pee in public. These hapless urinators are then sent to a mysterious dead end called Urinetown from which no one ever returns. (Can anyone say Soylent Green?) Holding together the human pollution eviscerated in Urinetown is the too-universal question: “Where’s my dough?” (I’ve long imagined that, if they could, capitalists would charge for breathing—and that marketing directors gazing at a new moon must regret what a waste it is that the Nike “swoosh” couldn’t be projected there.)

Improbably however, this presentational meta-musical isn’t just a Lez Miz or a Rent with laughs–it’s a love story between rabble-rouser Bobby Strong and Hope Cladwell, daughter of the corporation that owns the pipes and services the sewers. (Conservation, it seems, can be cruel; the lesson that civilization teaches evolution is “Don’t Be the Bunny”.) These mismatched and star-crossed mates get caught up in a revolt that begins at Amenity #9, the filthiest “comfort station” in town, and features a kidnapping, a not-so-secret hideout, a blood sacrifice, and revelations straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan. Can these crusaders who literally “Follow Your Heart” stand up to Officers Lockstock and Barrel (Tommy Bullington) and proclaim the innocence of their rage (“We’re Not Sorry”)? I think so.

By the Animal Farm-like end, an ambivalent combination of eco-tragedy and apocalyptic anarchy, one crisis has only been exchanged for another. But, if not the characters, the audience has unleashed its own (laugh) riot. We’re delighted by a rambunctious score, perfectly shaped by Charlotte Rivard-Hoster and backed by a scrappy five-person orchestra, that both sends up its own sentiment (the ironic “I See a River”) and dances up a funky storm (“Snuff That Girl”), the major moves motivated by Aubrey Adams. In our plutocratic and solipsistic Trump era, where souls and stuff are always up for sale, the show punches home potent points about corporate greed, mismanaged natural resources, political corruption, and, especially, the anti-social nature of deregulation and privatizing. Silly never seemed so serious.

A delight to equal the exuberant The Scottsboro Boys just across the hall in Stage 773, Stephen Schellhardt’s rollicking revival bursts with combustible kick-ass glee and several splendid performances, like handsome Henry McGinniss, charismatic as all heck, and delightfully dithering Courtney Mack as the unlikely lovers; Ariana Burks as the toxically poignant and simperingly sweet Little Sally; Molly Kral as the proletarian persecutor Penelope Pennywise; and Donterrio Johnson as massively venal Caldwell B. Cladwell. Urinetown is, among many blessings, a cleverly cautionary reflection on the kind of radicalism that redoubles its fervor once it forgets its goal. You’re in “Urinetown.”

photos by Katie Long

BoHo Theatre
Stage 773, 1225 W Belmont Ave
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on March 26, 2017
for tickets, call 773.327.5252 or visit BoHo Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Cookie Berger Tyrpak February 18, 2017 at 7:57 pm

As the mother of a New York-based actress, I think this production is fabulous and I give it a zillion stars. The cast is off the charts talented, and they never go out of character even when they are in the shadows of the stage. The musicians are positioned on the stage yet they are not overshadowing the talent. I highly recommend this show and can’t wait to see it a second time.


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