You’re in for a Seriously Funny Time at ‘Urinetown’
By Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: (Back row Left to Right.) Rachael Zientek (Hope Cladwell), Lucas Pastrana (Bobby Strong), Rhonda Rae Busch (Josephine “Ma” Strong), Rick Pendzich (Officer Lockstock), Amber Smith (Penelope Pennywise), and front seated director Ray Jivoff. Photo by Mark Frohna.
Don’t let the title fool you—Urinetown, The Musical is much more than adolescent bathroom humor.
Since its Broadway premiere in 2001, Urinetown, has developed a cult following, going on to win three Tony awards for Best Book, Original Score and Direction. The popularity train didn’t pass Southeast Wisconsin either, with nearly every college and university staging the musical satire in the last 10 years including Cardinal Stritch, Carthage, Marquette, and a bulk of the UW system — like Madison, Milwaukee, Waukesha and Whitewater, to name a few.
But what is it about Urinetown that keeps audiences coming back?
Skylight Music Theatre’s artistic director Ray Jivoff, who will be directing the theater’s upcoming production, says the piece reinvigorates the notion of what a musical can be.
Set in a Gotham-like city, a massive water shortage leads to a ban on private toilets, forcing innocent citizens to pay for the “privilege to pee.” Urine Good Company, led by the evil Caldwell B. Cladwell (Steven M. Koehler), actively enforces the law, sending people who refuse to pay for the basic need, or get caught whizzing behind a bush, to the infamous Urinetown.
Rachael Zientek (Hope Cladwell) and Lucas Pastrana (Bobby Strong)singing “Follow Your Heart” in rehearsal. Photo by Mark Frohna.
“There are definitely parallels between what we are seeing going on in the news and the situation that is embodied in the show,” Jivoff says. “I think we are working really hard to not beat the issues over the head. We are working hard to highlight the musical comedy elements.”
Urinetown offsets the more serious themes, like a need for environmental and political sustainability, by poking fun at itself and the musical theatre genre. Officer Lockstock (Rick Pendzich) and Little Sally (Kaylee Annable) continually break the fourth wall by reminding the audience to not overthink the show. The co-narrators open Urinetown by debating the show’s premise along with that outrageous title.
Not only does Urinetown satirize traditional musical theatre practice, like spontaneously breaking into song, but specific big-name musicals are called out as well. From Les Miserables and Threespenny Opera to Annie, none of the classics are safe from Urinetown.
“I think an audience member could bring a Bingo card and catch all the musical theatre references,” jokes choreographer Ryan Cappleman. “There’s some purposely built into the show and then I am trying to find anything I can possibly scrape the bottom of the barrel for.”
Lucas Pastrana (Bobby Strong), Amber Smith (Penelope Pennywise) and Rhonda Rae Busch (Josephine “Ma” Strong). Photo by Mark Frohna.
Some of the references inherited in the script include a spoof on Guys and Dolls’ Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat, West Side Story’s Cool and Fiddler on the Roof’s To Life. Cappleman took it upon himself to sprinkle in some Chorus Line references in the opening number, a Wicked ending to Act II, and the iconic Hamilton pose throughout the show.
However, Music Director David Bonofiglio says Urinetown isn’t just for people who can easily identify these musical theatre Easter eggs. The social satire and classic good versus evil plot offers a comedic relief to how messy our society can get.
“Anyone can enjoy this, and I think that’s one of the reasons it has won so many awards over its lifetime,” Bonofiglio explains. “It’s well-constructed, and well-constructed musicals stand the test of time.”
Urinetown, presented by Skylight Music Theatre, runs May 18 – June 10 at the Broadway Theatre Center. For tickets call 414-291-7800 or visit skylightmusictheatre.org.