At intermission, a young gentleman to my right remarked he’d rather see an OK production of “Urinetown: The Musical” than an excellent production of “Oklahoma.” If the number of seats occupied by teens was any indication, his fellow theatergoers agree. Kudos to Matthews Playhouse for stepping out of its comfort zone to perform a timely, edgy show.
The premise of “Urinetown” is plausible. A terrible drought has caused an untenable water shortage, and private toilets have been banned. The action takes place around the public toilet in the poorest part of town, where the down and out pay lesser fees for the “privilege to pee.”
The Urine Good Company (UGC) has a monopoly on toilets. Those who can’t pay or sneak out for “late-night, behind-the-bushes” relief, are exiled to “Urinetown” and never seen again. This wretched cycle is broken when Bobby Strong declares war on the system. After a random encounter with Hope, the pure-hearted daughter of the president of UGC, he declares freedom for the people, and a mini-revolution is born.
The script is deliciously tongue-in-cheek. The setting is “A town like any town you would find in a musical.” The play is narrated by genial Officer Lockstock (Richard Moore III), who also plays a bribe-taking cop who enforces the law with glee. His go-to sidekick is Little Sally (Bennett Prosser), who like Shakespeare’s fools speaks truth to power.
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The show won three Tony Awards, including best book of a musical for Greg Kotis and best score for Mark Hollmann and Kotis. It’s enthusiastically performed here and reflective of community theater talent. So it’s hard to tell if the music is particularly difficult to sing, or if the cast just has difficulty with the ensemble numbers.
Director-choreographer Emily Hunter enhances the songs with simple choreography, a wise choice. “Look At the Sky” and “Cop Song” are the most polished musical numbers, while “Follow Your Heart” is the cheesiest of love songs. The five-piece orchestra led by Carol Burnett is a special treat.
There are two excellent performances and a handful of good ones. Watch for Prosser, who as Little Sally has remarkable stage presence and admirable chops. Nick Pardo’s voice rises to the task as Bobby Strong, both in his love duets and calls to action. As Hope Cladwell, Avery Volker projects an exaggerated purity of heart that lends itself to the delightful cartoonish aspects of the show.
During moments in which the cast freezes, simultaneously swings its head and cries “Gasp,” you can practically see speech bubbles above their heads. Officer Lockstock sets the tone with wry asides explaining routine theatrical rules, including “Nothing can kill a show like too much exposition.” He’s the straight man, a hat Moore wears well.
Though the music is cheery and the wit dry, “Urinetown” is a black comedy about corrupt authority, environmental devastation and political exploitation. It questions the power of love and the mechanics of government. The post-show lobby conversation was lively, the mark of a show worth seeing.
This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance.
“Urinetown: The Musical”
When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Where: Matthews Community Center, 100 McDowell St. East, Matthews.
Details: 704-846-8343; matthewsplayhouse.com.