URINETOWN AT THE ST JAMES THEATRE, LONDON
Theatre Run: Continuing (Limited Season ending Saturday 03 May 2014)
Performance Reviewed: Saturday 08 March 2014 (Press Night 1/3)
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
Going into Urinetown, I was confident I would be prefacing my review with some astute, witty reference to the production’s characterful, if somewhat potentially off-putting titling. ‘Despite it’s bizarre name, Urinetown is...’ was just one of the potential openings already formulating as I took to my seat in the compact yet impressively sleek and contemporary confines of St James’ Theatre in Victoria. However, within literally minutes of this barnstorming, gleefully anarchistic and wonderfully unconventional musical theatre delight beginning, Urinetown had already pulled the rug from under my feet by seeing fit to poke fun at both itself, its title and the natural pre-conceptions and potential audience stigma surrounding it.
“Who’s gonna wanna see a show called that?”
Granted, such self-awareness and post-modernity isn’t exactly Earth-shatteringly new within the realms of musical theatre, but Urinetown confidently blows away the fourth wall right at the offset in irrepressible, oft-hilarious style, and there’s no turning back. Jonathan Slinger and Karis Jack step in and out of the ensuing action as the morally ambiguous Officer Lockstock and deliberately atypical ‘Little Sally’ respectively, regularly providing narration and exposition most commonly in the form of knowing digs and barbs at the audiences expectations and musical theatre structure and convention as a whole.
They are our appropriately cynical overseers of a suitably Brechtian tale set in a near, dystopic future (what else?) where a severe water shortage has led to everyday civilians being forced to literally pay to urinate, and carted off to the elusive, enigmatic ‘Urinetown’ should they attempt to defy said law. Naturally, corporate greed and power governs this with an iron fist, with the opportunistic Caldwell B. Cladwell (Simon Paisley Day), chief of the ‘Urine Good Company’ (which got a deserved laugh) sitting pretty as the tyrant in charge of the only urinals in town, euphemistically labelled ‘public amenities’. At one such urinal, Public Amenity #9, works the earnest Bobby Strong (Richard Fleeshman) under the stewardship of warden Penelope Pennywise (Jenna Russell).
It’s easy to see early on where the story would naturally find itself heading, and the eventual uprising of the downtrodden masses, punctuated with some healthy Les Mis parody and likewise, coupled with this particular productions’ somewhat aspirational marketing (‘A drop of hope can change the world’) would seem to indicate a fairly safe, predictable journey ahead. Fortunately, Urinetown maintains it’s disdain of convention and wonderfully post-modern approach throughout, the resulting madness constantly upending expectations and mischievously defying the theatrical norm, with an early highlight and example being a character deliberately spoiling a major mystery and natural Act II revelation within the shows opening 20 minutes. As Bobby rallies the people against the tyranny of Cladwell and his never-ending price hikes and police brutality, falling in love with Cladwell’s own idealistic daughter Hope (Rosanna Hyland) along the way, the satire, pastiche and general insanity is so consistently refreshing and inspired, and the narrative developments so whimsical and occasionally quite brave, that never have the words ‘formulaic’ and ‘predictable’ been further from the mind.
To go into too great a detail of the story’s winding, chaotic progression would risk spoiling a joyfully bizarre and bold experience, but needless to say there are some great truths and morals punched within the core of Urinetown that not only ring true but also fly in the face of more saccharine and traditional musical theatre mentality. The audience is told early on that this isn’t a particularly ‘nice’ musical, and thankfully this is a show which sticks to that promise, though fortunately never at the expense of the laughs or entertainment factor, both of which come thick and fast thanks to a dazzling synthesis of biting, intelligent book, a rousing, equally post-modern score and a thoroughly likable and notably talented cast. Act II in particular goes to some fairly dark and gruesome places, which may be off-putting to some in its visceral indulgence and bleak tone, but even these are bound by the honesty of the message Urinetown conveys (albeit one not quite fully realised until the show’s denouement) and often even the most morbid of moments are bookended with a great new number or gag that keeps the smiles etched firmly in place.
At times the level of self-awareness Urinetown demonstrates almost reaches The Producers level of inherent absurdity to the point that it gets difficult to discern at times what is deliberately satirical or parodic, where the show is perhaps being a little too intelligent for its own good or is just genuinely a touch flawed. For example, the blossoming relationship between Bobbie and Hope is knowingly a cutout, perfunctory musical theatre staple. Is it’s lack of meaningful development a genuine critique for the show or yet again an intelligent and ironic use of a trope that is ultimately sent into a chaotic freefall like the rest of the show anyway? Fortunately, the show is so irrepressible and joyously executed that it makes confusions such as this more entertaining bemusements and ruminations than anything.
From a technical perspective, there is zero downgrading or sense of restriction evident in Urinetown by dint of it being housed in a smaller venue. This is easily West End standard of production work (perhaps bar the occasionally unreliable and wobbly sound), with Soutra Gilmour’s intricate, revolving production and set design making terrific use of space and level, and perfectly evokes the grimy, dour aesthetic of the shows dystopia, met with comparably excellent costume, hair and make-up. Cladwell and his cadre of corporate confidantes look pulled straight from Mad Men by way of early Tim Burton, whereas Bobby, Miss Pennywise and the slum folk look perfectly disheveled and bereft, again with a welcome heightened slant to the hair and makeup in particular. Slick, tight choreography that seems to have a particular predilection for implementing a variety of props ranging from toy rabbits to stun batons, and Adam Silverman’s characterful lighting work rounds off what is a deliciously somewhat gothic and aesthetically arresting production seeped in character, ambience and style.
As mentioned, the Tony-winning soundtrack is one of Urinetown’s most complete successes and a pure delight in regards to both it’s intelligence and stand-alone listening value. The shows’ biting satirical edge is nowhere more apparent than in its roster of delightful, varied numbers which are arguably even more self-aware, satirical and comedic than last years similarly-toned The Book of Mormon. “Too much exposition” gets things started at an appropriately witty and referencial level, and the vast majority of songs that follow are of an equally entertaining and engaging standard. Unlike most musicals, practically every number hit the mark and elicited a healthy dose of laughter and audience reaction, with the gospel stylings of second act highlight, “Run, Freedom, Run!” being a show-stopping tour-de-force in particular. Performed with vocal gusto and some hilarious choir-mastering by Fleeshman, ‘Run!’ garnered one of the longest post-number applauses and standing ovations I have been privy to, and one that, naturally, Urinetown anticipated and incorporated into the humour of it all.
All of the superlatives and plaudits for the shows creativity and technical prowess can likewise be heaped upon its splendid cast, who, judging by their exuberant, spirited turns, are having a great time in a show of such invention and originality. Rosanna Hyland conveys the arc and eventual irony of Hope with an earnestness and innocence that ultimately transforms into something much more deliciously unconventional, with Hyland offering a sweetness to her tone and register that is perfectly fitting with the character. Jonathan Slinger is winningly deadpan and sardonic as Officer Lockstock and has the added fortune of being part of not one, but two entertaining double acts in the form of his partnerships with fellow officer Barrel (get it?), played with great presence and bombast by Adam Pearce, who harbours a fairly sidelined yet still giggle-worthy unrequited love for him, and the aforementioned narrating partnership and general omniscient asides with Karis Jack’s spunky, inquiring, voice-of-the-audience Little Sally.
Simon Paisley Day is suitably theatrical and hilariously unhinged as Cladwell, and whilst he disposes of subtlety and nuance early on, by adding such a neurotic spark and ferocity to his take on the character the result is an antagonist who seems more vibrant and in-keeping with the shows heightened style when comparing it to the original Broadway cast recording and performances. It’s a shame that this newer production couldn’t find a way of incorporating more lines and musical moments for his aide, Mr. McQueen though, as former Eastenders star Marc Elliot is an absolute delight in the role, giving a hilariously nervy and sycophantic turn that, even when he is hugging the edge of the stage with little to say or do, had me quietly tittering away at his wide-eyed, twitchy nervousness and overwhelmed disposition.
Jenna Russell goes about stealing scenes and commanding attention with her usual affinity for doing so, offering terrific character work and giving one of the shows most consistently funny highlights as the acerbic, self-serving Miss Pennywise who dishes out put-downs, switches allegiances and attitude and doles out physical comedy gold with hilarious regularity. And in Richard Fleeshman, Urinetown boasts a consummate and supremely talented leading man, mining the comedy, charm and, as with Hyland as Hope, frequent irony from a character that is inherent, though not necessarily obvious, in how he is written throughout. In the hands of a less capable performer, much of what makes Bobby such a great character and role could easily be streamlined and lost, but Fleeshman nails accent, vocals, choreography and the comedy chops demanded of him with an apparent ease, nowhere more apparent than in the aforementioned ‘Run, Freedom, Run!’ which could quite convincingly be argued as the performance highlight of the young actors already-impressive theatre career thus far.
Not everyone will warm to Urinetown. It is the antithesis of what most mainstream musicals are attempting to do, be and sell, and will likely have some leaving the theatre feeling a trifle detached and jaded by the experience as a result, though in an of itself that is perhaps cause for praise, for not everyone can expected to appreciate, understand or embrace a production when its bold yet ultimately truthful rejection of the over-sentimentalised theatrical status quo is delivered with such wit, panache and winning black comedy. Some will feel it is not as original or intelligent as it attempts to be, and even if in places this is fair criticism, Urinetown is still decidedly more refreshingly original and distinct than the vast majority of comedies or musical theatre experiences currently running in London, period.
Ultimately, with a razor-sharp, anarchic and uproariously post-modern book that is surprisingly relevant and socio-politically insightful, met with a similarly brilliant, ingeniously bricolage score, Urinetown is a very welcome and at times ingenious shot in the arm to what London musical theatre needs, in the spirit of the similarly chaotic and meta message of last years The Book of Mormon (though the original Broadway version of Urinetown predates Mormon by several years). As with Mormon, Urinetown succeeds because it is just as much a highly competent and technically solid musical of it’s own accord as it both a parody and celebration of the genre as a whole. Director Jamie Lloyd has taken the original formula and ingredients of the Broadway iteration of the show and ratcheted them up a notch or two, imparting a more distinctive styling to the show and bringing in a confident, talented cast who add real life, vigour and vehemence to his vision for the production.
By some mark one of the most entertaining, original and investing evenings of musical theatre in some time, Urinetown’s limited run resoundingly deserves West End-size audiences, and with any luck will pre-empt an eventual transfer, or at the very least a UK tour. In the meantime, approach Urinetown with an open mind, expect the unexpected and enjoy a wholly incomparable and irrepressible experience that is a simply brilliant, welcome splash in the face to anyone tired of the same old musical theatre de rigour.
... and to think I made it all the way through this review without reverting to any such p**s-poor puns.
(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * * * (5 out of 5 Stars)
URINETOWN is running for a Strictly Limited Season at the St James Theatre in London until Saturday 03 May 2014.
Alternatively, call the Box Office directly on 0844 264 2140 now to book your tickets!
Press tickets for this performance of Urinetown were provided courtesy of Emma Holland PR. (A)musings Media gratefully acknowledges their generous invitation.