By Barry Reszel
Pay to pee.
It’s neither Donald Trump‘s latest executive order nor Bernie Sanders‘ solution to ponying up to cover the “free college for all” tab.
It is, however, the premise of the darkly farcical yet highly-decorated Urinetown, now being staged by BoHo Theatre at Stage 773. This musical satirizes big business, legal bureaucracy, capitalism, populism, government, class warfare, municipal politics and musical theatre.
BoHo’s Stephen Schellhardt-directed presentation of the piece leaves first-time patrons of Urinetown asking themselves the same question one of the actors onstage asks toward the show’s end, “What kind of a musical is this?” And answering with a smile, “I’m not completely sure; but I liked it…a lot.”
The 2002 Tony winner for Best Book (Greg Kotis) and Best Score (Mark Hollman, who also penned the lyrics) lost the Best Musical category to the Sutton Foster-launching, Thoroughly Modern Millie that year. But the wicked satire hosted patrons at more than 1,000 Broadway performances between 2001 and 2004, and it’s been performing somewhere nearby ever since. Indeed, alongside the the BoHo production is a Northwestern University staging fewer than 10 miles away, through February 26. Licensing giant Music Theatre International (think Ticketmaster-like monopoly) ought to be ashamed.
BoHo’s terrific staging is rather spartanly produced in an intimate room. At first blush, it’s hard to believe a 14-member cast and Music Director Charlotte Rivard-Hoster‘s five-piece orchestra (so good it sounds like 12) will share the space well. Indeed they do, with clever, deft staging by Schellhardt and well-executed, exacting choreography by Aubry Adams. The multi-faceted second level of Scenic Designer Tony Churchill‘s functional set and use of the house aisle help, too.
Urinetown is the story of residents in a dystopian metropolis inspired by the works of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Experiencing a severe water shortage brought on by a 20-year drought, the government has banned private toilets and required use of public amenities, regulated by a monopolistic corporation (again, think Ticketmaster). When rates are raised to sustain profits, the poorest users, led by a young rebel, show just how pissed off they can be. (A full synopsis may be read here.)
In the BoHo production, precise characterizations from each member of the ensemble and splendidly blended vocals serve as hallmarks of the overall quality. Full ensemble numbers are truly audience treats, with “Run, Freedom, Run!” and “I See a River” among the favorites.
That said, there are numerous standout performances, beginning with area favorite Henry McGinniss as likeable, vulnerable revolutionary Bobby Strong and ditzy love-interest-turned-rebel-convert Hope Cladwell, played wonderfully by Jeff winner Courtney Mack. Their duet, “Follow Your Heart,” is particularly lovely.
Others include Scott Danielson‘s hilarious portrayal of Officer Lockstock (yes, sidekick Officer Barrel, Tommy Bullington, is an excellent straight man); Ariana Burks‘ performance as a salty, worldly Little Sally; Donterrio Johnson‘s work as fast-talking, money-grubbing corporate head Caldwell Cladwell; and Molly Kral‘s depiction of Penelope Pennywise, whose character arc is quietly the most poignant of the entire piece.
In a world inundated with political uncertainty and rancor, BoHo’s latest hit might just offer a necessary, welcome escape from CNN’s nightly Breaking News updates playing in a living room nearby.
So poke some fun at a favored entertainment genre.
Laugh along at the ridiculousness that is Urinetown.
Because no one is proposing “pay to pee” in an effort to make America great again.
BoHo Theatre presents “Urinetown” through March 26 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Katie Long.