Review: Urinetown (StageWorks)

Urinetown press photo

Urinetown is a twisted story. In an unnamed Midwestern city, a water shortage has forced the authorities to forbid urination—except in privately-owned public amenities, which charge exorbitant sums for the privilege of peeing. Those who defy the law and illicitly relieve themselves are arrested and sent off to “Urinetown”, an unspeakably dark and horrifying place.

When the employees of one of these amenities decide to defy the monopoly and stop charging their customers (“WE PEE FOR FREE!”), revolution breaks out. Will the rebels succeed, or will the powers that be crush the movement and cement their grip on the city’s bladders?

The Tony award-winning script and score tend toward the absurd, and the cast, directed by Lorraine Green-Kimsa, does wonderful work with it. Neither cloying nor pretentious, the mood is note-perfect throughout and never feels inconsistent. Combining wide-eyed innocence with hammy scenery munching is no small task, but they somehow pull it off.

The ensemble cast is exceptional, and both my companion and I agreed that the group numbers are the best in the show. The beginning of the second act, culminating in the show-stopping “Run, Freedom, Run”, showed the entire company at its strongest. Two members of the ensemble in particular stood out: Astrid Atherly does magnificent work all around, especially in the second act; while Jennie Friesen Garde channels Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine to memorable effect.

The principle cast members, although all good singers, sometimes seemed to have difficulty with voice projection during feature numbers. The Annex is an unforgiving space for musicals, and this may have been less of a problem in a more conventional venue.

Despite this, the company turns out some spectacular character work: Leeman Kessler, as the scheming Mr. McQueen, practically slithers across the stage, leaving an oily trail in his wake; Will van der Zyl and Sarah Butler play the expository couple of paternalistic Officer Lockstock and precocious Little Sally to perfection; and Lauren Lazar finds great success as the dewy-eyed Hope Cladwell, charming and precious even when tied to a chair with a knife at her throat.

Musical Director Tom Kerr, who also leads the house band, has clearly put the cast through its paces, and it pays off with the universally strong singing performances. The band, for its part, is both talented and used effectively. It’s a challenging score, but they swing it.

But by far the best part of this show was how much the audience loved it. The laughter shook the floor, the smiles followed people home, and the cast deserved the standing ovation it received at the end.

This is semi-professional theatre at its finest, and Urinetown represents an immense success for StageWorks. By the time you read this, you’ll probably have missed the sold-out run, and that’s a pity. But if they keep this up, both the buzz and the ticket sales should carry them to many more seasons of top-notch community theatre. (And they’ll deserve it, too.)

– Urinetown played at the Annex Theatre (730 Bathurst, one block south of Bathurst & Bloor) until August 19th, 2012.
– Shows at 8 PM on the 16th, 17th, 18th and 2 PM on the 18th and 19th.
– Tickets were $22 general admission.

Photograph of Andrew Soutter and the company by Nicholas Jones.