Some of the people who most enjoy "Urinetown: The Musical" do it a disservice. The exceptionally funny and musically invigorating production now at Arlington's Signature Theatre doesn't really need the help of self-styled theater sophisticates who can't help using terms such as "Brechtian" or "allegorical" whenever this highly entertaining show is discussed.
Even Eric Schaeffer, Signature's brilliant, usually public relations-savvy artistic director, felt compelled to describe "Urinetown" as "dark and gritty," when it is light and frothy. Sure, it has moments that bring Bertolt Brecht's socially conscious work to mind, and there is allegory regarding the unsustainability of the excesses of modern life. But you should see it because it's fun, full of over-the-top comic performances, with satirical, playful dialogue, inspired choreography and an exciting, eclectic score.
Despite the title and story line, in which an evil corporation controls where citizens of a water-starved town can legally relieve themselves, there is little bathroom humor, and the show can safely be enjoyed by the entire family. Maybe that's what causes all the misplaced analysis: Because the musical originated in New York's tres cool Fringe Festival, some folks want to cling to the conceit that it is not for the masses. They conveniently overlook its eventual move to Broadway, its nomination for the very mainstream "Best Musical" Tony in 2002 and its winning of Tonys for the book, score and direction.
Writer Greg Kotis came up with the concept for the production while wandering the streets of Paris, unable to afford the city's pay toilets. In his fevered, distended state, he divined that it might be amusing to stage a show in which most of the characters are just looking for a place to go to the bathroom. Kotis teamed up with Mark Hollman, who wrote the music, and the show became a substantial hit.
The show revels in outrageously stereotypical characters and situations. The dialogue and song lyrics make fun of the show's title, subject matter and audience reactions.
Hollman and Kotis aren't above stringing rhymes like "mockery," "crockery" and "dockery" into one sentence. The smarmy narrator, Officer Lockstock(Stephen F. Schmidt), opens the show by deconstructing the entire effort that is to come when he declares, "Hello, and welcome to Urinetown. Not the place, of course. The musical."
Soon, other beloved musicals are being lampooned as the 16-member cast, many of whom are Signature regulars, moves through 16 songs that range from old-fashioned show tunes to poignant ballads to rousing anthems and even gospel.
In a Charles Dickens-meets-the Great Depression world, water is so scarce that the Urine Good Company manipulates politicians and gains control of all the toilets. Any other method of seeking relief is punishable by exile to Urinetown, a mysterious place from which no one returns. Young firebrand Bobby Strong (Will Gartshore) inspires a gang of the bladder-oppressed to kidnap lovely, simple-minded Hope Cladwell (Erin Driscoll), daughter of evil tycoon Caldwell B. Cladwell (Christopher Bloch). Bobby and Hope fall in love, of course, even as the masses continue the revolution.
Signature stalwarts Donna Migliaccio, Steven Cupo and Bloch have moments to shine, but the show belongs to Gartshore, who shows a previously hidden comic sensibility; Driscoll, displaying wide vocal versatility as starry-eyed Hope; Schmidt, as the unctuous Lockstock; and Jenna Sokolowski as Little Sally, an endearing beggar girl. Director Joe Calarco keeps James Kronzer's spartan, rough-hewn platform full of exaggerated movement, accented by Karma Camp's snappy choreography, which is as diverse as the score pounded out by Jay Crowder's small band from a platform above the stage.
"Urinetown: The Musical" continues through Oct. 9 at Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Dr., Arlington. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. For tickets, call 800-955-5566, or visit www.signature-theatre.org.