So you think Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” is the most absurdist play that City Repertory Theatre will be staging during its current season? “Urinetown,” that 2001, over-the-top, satirical musical which runs various days from Oct. 22-31 at CRT’s Palm Coast venue, may make Beckett’s play seem as mundane as a bank audit.
The Tony-winning Broadway show, with music by Mark Hollmann, lyrics by Hollmann and Greg Kotis, and book by Kotis, is set in a dystopia in which a severe 20-year water shortage has forced the masses to use pay toilets controlled by a mega-corporation headed by the villainous Caldwell B. Cladwell (played by City Rep veteran Earl Levine). The draconian policies of his corporation, Urine Good Company, are enforced by the corrupt politicians and policemen he’s bribed, and urinal matrons such as Penelope Pennywise (Phillipa Rose), who makes Nurse Ratched seem like Mother Teresa.
Refuseniks who buck the pay-to-pee system are banished to a mysterious place called Urinetown – and are never seen again. The status quo is disrupted when Bobby Strong (Alexander Loucks), an assistant custodian at the poorest, filthiest urinal in town, instigates a pee-for-free revolt – and falls in love with Cladwell’s daughter Hope (Laniece Fagundes) along the way.
Meanwhile, the satiric barbs of “Urinetown” come fast and furious, taking aim at fascism, capitalism, authoritarianism, corporate greed, police brutality, political corruption, abuse of the poor, and the tensions between personal freedoms versus societal good.
There’s more: Specific musicals such as “Les Miserables” and Bertolt Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera” are parodied, along with the Broadway musical artform in toto.
The play even flogs itself, as when the street urchin Little Sally (Angela Young) breaks the “fourth wall” and proclaims that “Urinetown” is a “horrible title” for a musical.
“When I first read the synopsis, I said ‘Holy shit, this is an encyclopedia!’ ” says director and City Rep co-founder John Sbordone of the play’s satire.
But Sbordone is adamant that “Urinetown,” which was nominated for 10 Tony Awards and won three, including Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score, doesn’t get weighed down by its weighty themes.
He rightfully notes that “the ‘absurd’ is a very particular literary device, a genre, and this is parody in its greatest form – it’s just fun.” He prefers another word to describe the musical: “ridiculous.”
Never mind that – spoiler alert! – some characters get murdered.
“It’s hard not to laugh at ‘Don’t Be the Bunny,’ ” says Levine of a song sung by the uber-malevolent Cladwell – a song which Sbordone sardonically notes “is about murder.”
“It’s so easy, given all these themes, to make this play serious,” Sbordone says, to which the cast gathered for the round-table interview collectively utters “Um-hum” in agreement.
“Most good comedies are centered in human tragedy,” Sbordone says, echoing W. B. Yeats’s concept of “tragic gaiety” and Nietzsche’s “amor fati” (“love of fate”) – concepts which posit that extraordinary strife can lead to extraordinary triumph or even joy, however sardonic.
The serious matters of “Urinetown” are “the underpinning of what is essentially just a laugh fest,” Sbordone says. “If the audience doesn’t laugh then we’ve just failed. They (the play’s creators) go out of their way to make sure that you know that you are not supposed to take this too seriously. A somewhat literate audience might not want to get caught up in all of the esoterica about the show. Perhaps they would be interested in all of the humor, all of the parody, all the ways in which the show takes pokes at society, musicals, law and order. Everywhere you turn, it’s poking fun at something.”
That fun even includes the physical staging of the play in City Rep’s black box theater in Palm Coast’s City Marketplace – and a further breaking down of that fourth wall in which audience members may find themselves part of the show.
Patrons “won’t recognize the theater from anything they’ve seen (at CRT) unless they were at ‘Rocky Horror,’ ” Sbordone says. “We have action going on behind the audience, in front of the audience, in the audience – everywhere. We’ve got seats called ‘action seats.’ If you sit in one of those seats, you are in the show, you are part of the revolution.”
“It’s going to be a very different experience for a lot of people,” says Young, who portrays the street urchin Little Sally. “We are getting the audience up on their feet, clapping with us, dancing with us, moving around and becoming part of the show with us.”
“But audience members have to choose those seats,’ Sbordone says. “Either that or they will be the only seats left and they’ve got to sit there and be part of the play,” he adds with a wicked laugh.
Despite “Urinetown’s” premise of a pay-to-pee dystopia — which was inspired when co-creator Greg Kotis encountered a pay toilet as a cash-strapped student traveling in Europe — the musical “is a very clean show,” Levine says. “It doesn’t even really get into bathroom humor.”
“If people ask, ‘Can I bring my child to this?’ – of course you can,” Sbordone says.
Despite the play’s ridiculous nature, theater-goers will have the opportunity to ponder those weighty themes – such as whether the sacrifice of a few is justifiable to save the many. Consider Levine’s response when his character is described as the villain of the piece.
“I’m no more evil than you or anyone,” Levine says, playing devil’s advocate (one hopes). “I’m just a man who is trying to cling to tomorrow. And I work every day to do that. Cladwell owns a company that basically owns public toilets and has control of all the water – he has control of everything. He has paid off everybody. He pays off the police. He bribes politicians and he murders any public rebelliousness. He just snuffs them out.
“He’s made sure he has all the power because it’s necessary – he has to have the power, you see, because the other people are too stupid to know how to stay alive. They’ve got a water shortage and my character has a way to get out of this horrible problem.”
The play includes a brief invocation of Thomas Robert Malthus, the English economist who lived from 1766 to 1834 and warned in his writings of the perils of population growth and its resultant diminishing of resources.
Such moments, as well as the sly pastiches of the music of “West Side Story,” “The Threepenny Opera” and what Sbordone calls the “generic Broadway happy song,” may make one wonder whether “Urinetown” is too clever for its own good.
“The play falls into an area where it is so clever that if you do know the references, and especially if you know Brecht and Kurt Weill and ‘Threepenny Opera,’ the main thing it is parodying, then you will be able to get so much out of it,” says Beau Wade, who portrays Officer Lockstock, a corrupt cop who is Cladwell’s henchman — as well as a narrator of the play and thus another trespasser of that fourth wall.
“But somebody who doesn’t know any of those references will still find the music especially catchy, the characters well-defined and the story itself grounded and funny,” he says.
–Rick de Yampert for FlaglerLive
“Urinetown,” at City Repertory Theatre, directed by John Sbordone, musical direction by Ben Beck, choreography by Diane Ellertsen, Agata Sokolska, stage manager, at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 22-23 and 29-30, and at 3 p.m. Oct. 24 and 31. Performances will be in CRT’s black box theater at City Marketplace, 160 Cypress Point Parkway, Suite B207, Palm Coast. Tickets are $30 adults and $15 students, available online at crtpalmcoast.com, by calling 386-585-9415, or at the door.