‘Urinetown’ leaves audience laughing
The home of the American musical is New York City’s Times Square, where pedestrians can make a 360-degree spin and be staring at advertisements no matter where they look. Tickets to the theater are themselves status symbols, yet the people who write and act in them are mostly poor artists, overwhelmingly liberal and struggling to scrape by. So how can the musical, a famously schmaltzy and artificial form of entertainment, be anti-capitalist without seeming hypocritical? For “Urinetown,” the 2001 musical which Tympanium Euphorium staged over the weekend, the answer is simple: laugh about it.
“Urinetown” is set in a post-apocalyptic world where an endless drought forces the people to recycle their — well, urine. Whizzing in the woods is a criminal offense, but the toilets are all owned by a massive corporation which charges fees just to get into a stall. While the poor beg for change to relieve themselves, fatcats pay off the police and the government to enforce their bathroom-industrial complex.
If this sounds ridiculous to you —good. “Urinetown” works because it doesn’t take its premise seriously and ridicules the same theatrical conventions it follows. Square-jawed cop Officer Lockstock and Shirley Temple-esque child Little Sally (Zain Walker ’18 and Nyomi White ’20, both hilarious) constantly pop out of their roles in the story to point out the same plot holes and clichés the audience might be noticing themselves.
“Wouldn’t the bigger problem with the drought be its impact on hydraulics technology?” Little Sally asks. “Sure,” Lockstock replies “But that wouldn’t make for a very interesting musical.”
The plot provides no shortage of jokes for them. It’s a melodrama through and through, from its strapping young lad of a protagonist (Derek Scullin ’18) to the naive (read: stupid) ingenue he falls for (Caitlin Crane Moscowitz ’20, excellent). But what “Urinetown” does take seriously is its themes — the oppression of the working class, the dangers of untethered capitalism and the need for well-planned revolution when all else fails.
Even Tymp’s poster invokes communist symbolism, replacing the hammer with the plunger in a worker’s fist. That kind of joke is right up “Urinetown’s” alley: the play’s serious themes keep the comedy from feeling aimless, while the jokes keep the message from feeling too preachy.
Tymp’s production had a clear eye for what works in “Urinetown,” thanks to director Gabe Walker’s ’19 strong choices and excellent performances across the board by the leads.
Scullin dominated his many songs and solos with incredible vocals and strong stage presence. Ben Steinberg ’18 lent bellowing shouts and great comic timing to the evil CEO of the toilet company, while imbuing just enough humanity that one could see his perspective. Even bit players got time to shine, from Emily Galloway’s ’18 croaking beggar to Karina Wen’s ’20 sarcastic corporate employee. The choreography was nothing to write home about, and some microphone flubs and slow cues betrayed a slightly rushed rehearsal process. None of those criticisms are unusual for an amateur production, and none of it detracted from the enjoyability of the performance.
“Urinetown” exemplified all the fun and idealism that the best Undergraduate Theater Collective shows encompass. Yet much like “Martyr,” another play which went up this weekend, its themes have turned out to be eerily prescient to our current political and social realities.
Unlike “Martyr,” though, “Urinetown” asks us to consider the world around us by laughing about what makes us scared. Sure, the wealthy have outsized power, and yeah, the police don’t really protect the people. But hey, at least we don’t have to pay to take a pee, right? I mean, paying a company for a biological necessity? That’d be like if we had to buy our own food or something.