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WELCOME RELIEF: Two decades after its audacious debut, ‘Urinetown’ remains a prescient delight

LaRaisha Dionne showcases her mad set of pipes in Thalian Association’s “Urinetown.” Photo by James Bowling

 

Gee whiz! It’s hard to think a 20-year-old musical about the basic right to take a piss would be so poignant or topical in 2019. Still, “Urinetown,” written by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, successfully mirrors and mocks our politically and environmentally ravaged world damn near to a T—err, a “pee.”

“Urinetown” is the latest outing from Thalian Association. And I have to say: They’ve outdone themselves with a rather dark and twisted dystopic comedy that will have audiences rolling with laughter. Staged at the Hannah Block Historic USO, the show satirizes corporate greed, political corruption, and the ways in which extreme ideals can lead to extreme ends. It depicts a world wherein citizens must pay to pee due to a water shortage. The toilets are controlled by Urine Good Company (UGC) and monitored by a psychotic police force. To put it bluntly, it’s a silly show with a serious story—think “Les Miserables” by way of “The Road Warrior,” produced by B-movie outfit Troma Entertainment.

Directed with a keen eye by Wilmingtonian Patrick Basquill, the show starts at a whip-crack pace and never slows. From its tight production designs to its well-serving cast, “Urinetown” scores as a success for all involved: company, cast and crew.

Upon walking into the USO auditorium, audience members will be floored by its transformation into Urinetown. The set design by Tymoteusz Dvorak is pure theatre magic. Dvorak masterfully creates a world for the cast and the audience to get lost in. Every glance is met with some new detail to absorb. From the shanty huts that make up the destitute resident’s homes, to the high-tower boardroom of the UGC, everything sprawls across the stage. The thrust stage could have been better utilized to help decongest some of the musical’s overstuffed moments. Overall, the set is outstanding to behold.

The costume design also requires heavy lifting. Costumer Allyson Moore-Mojica is tasked with creating a diversity of characters: from the filth-covered droogs living in the streets, holding in their pee, to ‘80s-style business executives hiding dark hearts behind gaudy duds. Moore-Mojica tackles the feat and destroys it, and gives each character distinct details to stand apart from others. Her work on Caldwell B. Cladwell (Jon Wallin), the villainous, purple-and-neon-suit-wearing owner of the UGC, is a real standout. But her high point comes during “Cop Song,” when an army of fishnet-clad toilet cops descend on the stage. It’s a great moment for choreographer Laura Brogdon-Primavera.

Elsewhere, the choreography attempts a sense of controlled chaos with slow-motion sequences littered throughout the show. It creates laughs but otherwise disrupt proceedings, while numbers such as “Don’t Be the Bunny” and “Why Did I Listen to the Man?” do a better job of capturing a manic energy while still driving home the show’s themes.

Thalian Association’s “Urinetown” is fun! Photo by James Bowling

 

The live band, led by musical director Thaddaeus Freidline, is rocking; though, at times, its proximity to the stage causes the musicians to overpower the singing (even more damning when microphones don’t come on as needed). But the company is stellar and rise above minor issues. Caylan McKay puts the “pee” in perfection as Officer Lockstock, the show’s half-first-person, half-third-person meta-style narrator. Embracing the show’s cartoonish world, McKay strikes a nimble balance between despicable and lovable. He’s paired well with Beth Corvino, who plays the adorable and precocious Little Sally. Little Sally serves as a proxy for the audience, who questions the show’s very logic and constantly reminds people how “Urinetown” is an ugly name for a musical. Corvino’s deadpan expressions and explosive temperament bring about some truly funny moments.

Once again, LaRaisha Dionne shows off why is she one of the dominant divas of Wilmington theatre. In the role of Penelope Pennywise, she’s something of a slumlord of the shitters. She controls her territory with an iron plunger and attitude for days. Her voice reaches its crescendo in the Act One number “It’s a Privilege to Pee,” which fills the venue yet never overpowers.

Every good story needs a villain, and Jon Wallin’s take on the role of the evil Caldwell B. Cladwell certainly qualifies. Wallin takes glee in romping about the stage, seducing and trapping his costars in a sinister web that he quickly spins into a tightened noose. His malevolence is on full display in the show-stealing number “Don’t Be the Bunny.” Wallin is a fantastic character actor who has received a “Ten Points to Gryffindor” from me for a number of his performances. The guy is a real secret weapon.

Speaking of secret weapons: holy shit is Rachel Walters amazing as Hope Caldwell, the daughter of the evil CEO and new copy girl for UGC. Embracing camp, Walters finds real humor in her journey from faux-Patty Hurst to wide-eyed revolutionary. She wows while belting numbers like “Follow Your Heart” and “I See a River.” The latter is hilariously uplifting, given how bleak the accompanying visuals are.

Sadly, the dashing assistant custodian-turned-rebellion leader Bobby Strong, played by Mathis Turner, is a leading role that could get flushed away. Turner’s performance resembles a car in neutral; his movements seem on odd delay, as if he is trying to recall just what comes next. Actors who exchange dialogue with him appear to be playing wall ball with their words.

With the news that Chennai, in eastern India, is virtually out of water, and others like London, Tokyo, Mexico City, and Miami face similar long-term predicaments, “Urinetown” is uniquely equipped to speak to our times. It also highlights a need for similar musicals that reflect modern societal issues in campy, hilarious ways.

Thalian’s “Urinetown” is a fun, fast and foul, and will undoubtedly entertain anyone who steps into its world for two hours. It’s subtle take on a legitimate global concern rewards theater-goers who can stomach a bit of morality with their humor. If nothing else, we can all go down laughing with this fantastic, futuristic fable.

DETAILS

Urinetown
Through August 25
Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m.
Hannah Block Historic USO Building
120 S. 2nd St.
Tickets: $20-$25
910-251-1788
thalian.org

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Peeter Piper

    August 20, 2019 at 3:21 pm

    too many pee jokes for my taste but w/e

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