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Urinetown, a contemporary satire musical written by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann, brings together a fictional community of elites and lower socioeconomic citizens in the fight for fair urination laws. It is quickly apparent that the storyline is quite surface level but inspires deep levels of discussion about America’s class system and values. Performed in NC State’s Stewart Theatre at Talley Student Union, a cast of 25 students welcomed audience members with bright smiles, with a handful of performers standing out to steal the audience’s hearts.
Although Urinetown first premiered in 2001, its subliminal messages of capitalism and social irresponsibility hold true to this day. The conflict of having to pay for a basic human necessity (urination) is not far off from the realities of many working-class Americans today. Although the script relies heavily on satire, the jokes hit because they are darkly realistic.
Act I brings audience members into the show's filthy town, introducing its poorest members who are experiencing firsthand the effects of a 20-year drought. From the jump, this production's costumes, sets, and lighting were impressive. The costumes of "The Poor" mirrored the everyday American: a boy scout, a pregnant mother, a young girl with pink bows, and a veteran. But they were masked with dirt and rags, communicating the social positions of these characters right away. Additionally, the set was a major attraction. With run-down buildings, cheap motel signs, and large arrows pointing to private urination locations, I was audibly in awe by the quality of the set and its ability to make me feel like I too was living in the poorest sector of the city.
The show transitions to the elite members and owners of Urine Good Company (UGC): Mrs. Millenium (Emma Grace Collins), Dr. Billeaux (Kara Nicole Cushman), Caldwell B. Cladwell (Will Godby), and Hope Cladwell (Mary Elizabeth Furr). Despite the costume success of the Poor, the costumes of the Rich were confusing and challenging to understand within the context of the story. Many of the Rich were not well introduced to the audience, thus their costumes distracted from the story, such as Dr. Billeaux, who was dressed in a red and white seemingly latex nurse outfit. It was unclear what her role as a doctor contributed to the storyline. Comparatively, the set of UGC was underwhelming, with the main and only attraction being crystal curtains on both sides of the stage to resemble luxury and wealth, which didn't communicate the luxurious setting of UGC as well as the opening set communicated the destitution of the Poor.
By the end of Act I, the Poor have begun to rebel against UGC and its power hungry leaders by taking Hope Cladwell as hostage in their secret hideout. While staying anonymous in their hideout, the Poor perform a handful of impressive group numbers, filled with cohesive and exciting choreography. “Snuff That Girl” and “Run, Freedom, Run” were two musical standouts that had the audience dancing in their seats and laughing along the way.
As a member of the audience, I felt the rebellious energy of the characters and yearned for a happy ending for the Poor, but Act II is filled with potential hope that does not come to fruition. The script leads us to believe Bobby Strong and the Poor will win in their fight for fair urination laws, but things quickly take a turn when Hope Cladwell ultimately lets down her community. Even though the hope the audience yearns for does not carry through in the script, the actors did a wonderful job of taking us on that journey, living in their characters and convincing us the future is bright.
The script's jokes become repetitive, and unfortunately do not land when used time and time again. However, there where actors who whose jokes did land from start to finish, and they carried the show. Jackson Samuel Griffin (Officer Lockstock) was a clear stand out, along with Will Godby (Caldwell B. Cladwell) and Julia Robbins (Penelope Pennywise). The stage presence of Griffin was undeniable, and he even went as far as to interact heavily with the audience, making the satire more intimate. These individuals were responsible for infusing the show with its overall energy. The ensemble lacked the same level of performance energy as the leads, which left me waiting for a stronger sense of chemistry on stage. While this somewhat undercut the show's theme of community, it was not detrimental to the overall likability of the performance and could be blamed on opening night jitters.
Urinetown is a timely story of American capitalism, greed, and the repercussions of bureaucracy and corporate mismanagement that doesn’t fall far from social epidemics seen in our real world. Climate change, homelessness, healthcare, and access to education can all be tied back to the basic thread of a deeply rooted capitalistic society. The cast of Urinetown were successful in musically portraying the dark reality our society might share in the next few years if no action is taken.
NC State’s production of Urinetown continues through Sunday, February 26 at Stewart Theatre. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.