June 09--If you've been anxious for a spectacularly entertaining musical, then you can relieve yourself in "Urinetown."
There's big-time joy to be had at the Jungle Theater's exuberant production of the musical, which spoofs "Les Miserables" (or, as one of its characters has it, "Los Miserablos") while also incorporating elements of "A Chorus Line," Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video, Bertolt Brecht, "Bye Bye Birdie" and the whole absurdly wonderful idea of musical theater in the first place. From the beginning, the narrator (Bradley Greenwald, whose crack timing is no surprise, but did everybody but me know he has this magnificent voice?) tells us the characters are aware that they're in a musical. And from then on, they participate with various levels of comfort, sometimes blithely belting out big showtunes and sometimes joining in dance numbers almost as if their feet have minds of their own.
As we're also told by that narrator, a policeman charged with enforcing cruel laws, Urinetown is either a hellish place where offenders are sent, never to be heard from again, or it's a metaphor for -- well, something. The musical takes place in an unnamed city in an unspecified time frame (The past? The future? Who cares?) when the water supply is so depleted that residents must pay to pee. While the wealthy get fat off the tolls of the poor, the less-fortunate clutch their groins and beg for the coins that will gain them entry to public toilets.
The premise is idiotic and
"Urinetown" knows it. "I don't think many people are going to want to see this musical," a character tells the narrator. She's wrong, by the way; "Urinetown" is a guaranteed smash. But that character, a brassy little girl who is named Little Sally and who is played by an adult powerhouse named Elisa Pluhar, is a clever stand-in for those of us in the audience who need a little reassurance that a musical about micturition can be as buoyant, savvy and frequently side-splitting as this one is. (In the show's many choral numbers, I kept finding myself looking at Pluhar, not because she pulls focus but because she's so thoroughly immersed in her sassy character that I suspected she'd always be doing something interesting. And she always was.)
You sense that the hearts of "Urinetown" creators Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis are with the lively supporting characters but they make sure there's also plenty of personality in the romance at the center of "Urinetown": Bobby, a plucky iconoclast who is fixing to rebel against his urinary overlords, and Hope, who loves Bobby even though her father, dastardly Caldwell Cladwell, is the villain of the piece. Gary Briggle plays Cladwell with lip-smacking evil glee but there's just as much fun in Patrick Morgan's confidently sung Bobby, particularly in a scene where he leads the cast in a rousing gospel number that is a parody of rousing gospel numbers everywhere (this means you, "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" and you, too, Madonna's "Like a Prayer").
It's a large cast -- I don't think they could fit one more person on the Jungle's modest stage -- but mention must also be made of Kersten Rodau, who has a big voice and gets big laughs as Penelope Pennywise, a vicious enforcer of urine laws who might just have a heart of gold. There are a lot of big voices in this cast, which leads to my one major criticism of the Jungle's "Urinetown": These terrific singers could undoubtedly fill this tiny space, so why do they have to be miked? Perhaps the microphones are necessary to mix their voices with the off-stage band, but it creates a distance between us and them, and that's a shame.
It's not a deal-breaker, though. Under the direction of John Command, who finds just the right balance between loving musicals and lampooning them (I'd say it's about 70/30), "Urinetown" is a ton of fun and you should totally go. I know I'm mixing my bodily waste metaphors here, but "Urinetown" is a gas.
Chris Hewitt can be reached at 651-228-5552 or follow him on twitter.com/ChrisHMovie.
Where: Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
When: Through Aug. 11
Capsule: A good time is pretty much guaranteed.
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