“Urinetown, The Musical,” which just opened at Clarence Brown Theatre, is a completely silly musical with a completely ridiculous notion that addresses completely serious problems in America – the housing collapse, Congress stealing from Social Security and Medicare to give tax cuts for the wealthy, OPEC, contrived food shortages, and a dozen other fairness issues that mimic real life.
The late-night comedy shows learned a long time ago it’s more effective to make a point by making fun of something than it is by preaching about it. “Urinetown” does it with the premise of a greedy businessman, Cladwell B. Cladwell, played with temerarious delight by Peter Kovian, whose Urine Good Company (UGC) takes over a town’s water supply through bribes and coercion, creating such an artificial drought there isn’t enough water to operate the citizens’ private toilets. Everyone has to pay a fee to use the public amenities built by Cladwell’s company.
Not everyone goes, so to speak, willingly. The poor and oppressed are hit the hardest, with the filthiest urinal in town, Public Amenity No. 9, taking center stage in scenic designer Christopher Pickart’s wonderfully trashed, quasi-industrial factory set.
Of course, there is the insensitive fee taker, Penelope Pennywise (Charlotte Munson), who makes no exceptions, and an enforcer, Officer Lockstock (Norm Boucher), a head-cracking corrupt cop who is also the play’s narrator. “It’s a Privilege to Pee” is first sung by Munson’s Pennywise and later by Boucher’s Lockstock.
When Old Man Strong, effectively played by Tom Cervone, doesn’t have the required fee and Pennywise won’t give him any more credit, he pees on the outside wall of the urinal.
Arrested and done in by the cops, the death of the old man kicks off a rebellion led by his son, Jade Arnold’s Bobby Strong, joined by his mother, Josephine, and the rest of the unfortunate citizens.
In costume designer Marianne Custer’s exceptionally interesting clothes, the bad guys are all in black, including Cladwell, his minions and enforcers, the politicians, and the cops. The citizens are in colorful, mostly shabby costumes.
Of course, to offset Cladwell’s nastiness, there has to be a counteracting force. In this case, it’s Cladwell’s daughter, Hope, played by Brittany Marie Pirozzoll, splendidly dressed in sparkling white from head to toe.
Designated the heir to UGC, Hope Cladwell has a heart. She’s, at first, sympathetic to Bobby’s rebellion, then falls in love with him.
Structurally, “Urinetown” has a lot in common with Bertolt Brecht, especially his collaboration with Kurt Weill for his “Threepenny Opera.”
Through Lockstock, the audience is first invited into the story of the play, then pushed out again by pointing out this is really just a musical, and not a fun one at that.
“Urinetown” is a lot of laughs and thoroughly entertaining. It isn’t until one is on the way home that its more serious themes begin to sink in.
On more than one level, “Urinetown” stays with you.
“Urinetown” runs through May 6, with performances at 7:30 and 2:30 matinee performances April 29 and May 6. Call the box office at 865-974-5161, or online at www.knoxvilletickets.com for tickets.