Can a boy whose career is in the toilet and a girl whose father controls the instruments of personal hygiene find love in a city where you have to pay every time you, um, go? This is the musical question echoing throughout the sublimely zany canyons of "Urinetown," a show that gives a whole new connotation to comic relief.
Signature Theatre serves as headquarters for the shenanigans of this self-consciously silly musical, which finds in the company's converted garage an ideal spiritual home. A spoof of Brecht and Broadway, of the solemnity of "Les Miserables" and the haughtiness of "Evita," the show proves to be a natural for Signature and a merry band of players -- faces both familiar and new -- who seem to have "dizzy" encoded in their DNA.
"Urinetown" is one of the last shows slated for the space the company has inhabited for a dozen years. A new Signature Theatre is going up nearby, and what the Signature faithful have to pray for is that the scrappy intimacy of the garage will somehow be reflected in the new construction. It has become Signature's signature and a factor in the chemistry of love -- falling in love, that is, with the musicals that are the specialty of the house. The space has been adapted exceptionally well on this occasion by director Joe Calarco, who, like the actors, is energized by the freewheeling opportunity to send up the conventions of old Broadway.
So many of the hands responsible for the production are in top form that the musical's more trying aspects -- manic campiness has its limits -- seem mere hiccups. Karma Camp's choreography, for instance, is as inventive and inspired as I've ever seen it (wait for the production number with plungers), and Anne Kennedy's wigs and tattered costumes for the bladder-bloated poor are a full-scale riot. The cast rises ebulliently to the challenge of sustaining the caricature-driven insanity. Every one of the 16 actors is plugged into the same current.
Two supply extra electricity. Will Gartshore, playing the aforementioned boy, Bobby Strong, delivers a star-caliber performance as the story's noble-on-cue hero. Gartshore is always terrific -- his range has been apparent through Signature projects as varied as "Allegro" and "Pacific Overtures" -- but here he confirms a more rarefied status, as the best young musical-comedy leading man in town. His Bobby is beautifully sung as well as aptly smug and self-mocking. (As befits an off-kilter show, his stance -- shoulders back, leg extended -- is at an odd angle.) And when matched with Erin Driscoll's Hope Cladwell, the rich girl with a conscience and a kewpie-doll mien, it's double delight.
Where did they find Driscoll? Blond, diminutive and possessing one of those Betty Boop voice boxes, she's from the mold of a current Broadway darling, Kristin Chenoweth. Thanks largely to the amusing score by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, the pair's scenes together resound with biting satire, and when Driscoll and Gartshore tumble into each other's arms for "Follow Your Heart," the rolling-around suggests the beach scene in "From Here to Eternity" as it might be played by Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman. (Or Amy Poehler and Jimmy Fallon.)
Signature's "Urinetown," in fact, feels tighter and funnier than the New York original, which won the 2002 Tony Award for best score. It's a definitively postmodern musical, one that winks at the audience incessantly, never letting us forget that it knows that its storytelling is a contrivance and the musical numbers programmed to stimulate certain emotional responses. "Nothing can kill a show like too much exposition!" instructs Officer Lockstock (an excellent Stephen F. Schmidt), who doubles as the story's narrator and bare-knuckle enforcer.
The piece's attempts to mock Brecht have to do both with a "Threepenny Opera" array of characters and the theme of capitalist haves and socialist have-nots. It seems that an ecological disaster has drained the water table and forced authorities to, among other things, regulate urination. The public urinals are now controlled by a corrupt corporation run by Hope's father, Caldwell B. Cladwell, played to reptilian perfection by Christopher Bloch. His number, "Don't Be the Bunny," is a ripely sardonic anthem to the Darwinian brutality of the business world.
When Cladwell raises the urinal fees, Bobby, an assistant custodian at a "public amenity" overseen by Penelope Pennywise (a combustibly brassy Donna Migliaccio), leads a rebellion of the poor against the rich. The plot is, of course, as transparently manipulative as Officer Lockstock keeps telling us it is. The musical joke, though, is only so elastic -- how many times can you make fun of the need for a bathroom? -- and the show, er, stalls a bit (sorry!) as it motors to conclusion. The laughter in parody depends on an exhaustive ingenuity: The humor can go stale very quickly. Hollmann, Kotis and Calarco, too, run a little short of creative steam in the second act, after the hilariously rousing "Run, Freedom, Run."
A funny curtain call, however, revives things considerably. It's one of the show's most pleasant surprises. Set designer James Kronzer has configured the space as a splendidly simple wooden platform, which is lighted with panache by Chris Lee. Jay Crowder leads a five-piece band, nestled in a back corner, that's more than up to the job of filling the room. The cast's strong voices come through, blessedly, loud and clear.
It would be unfair not to mention some exemplary work in smaller parts: Sherri L. Edelen's Little Becky Two Shoes, Amy McWilliams's Josephine Strong and Thomas Adrian Simpson's Senator Fipp are all memorable without drawing attention to themselves. Jenna Sokolowski, too, does fine in the key role of Little Sally, the quintessential urchin. All contribute to the evening's polish and the feeling of well being that comes when a production is, pardon the expression, flush with talent.
Urinetown, music by Mark Hollmann; book by Greg Kotis; lyrics by Hollmann and Kotis. Directed by Joe Calarco. Music direction, Jay Crowder; sound, Tony Angelini. With Anthony Aloise, Michael Bunce, Steven Cupo, Eleasha Gamble, Jeffrey L. Peterson, Evan Casey, Phil Olejack. Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. Through Oct. 9 at Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Dr., Arlington. Call 800-955-5566 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.