Cool programming idea for a musical during an election cycle: the mock-protest show “Urinetown,” right?
Or maybe that’s a little too on the nose.
At least three D.C.-area outfits are reviving the plucky 2001 satire this season. Alexandria’s fledgling Monumental Theatre Company ran in July, and Herndon’s Next Stop Theatre will give it a go next May. Constellation Theatre Company’s current staging figured to be the most promising, riding the momentum from its seven Helen Hayes Awards last spring for its first musical foray, “Avenue Q.”
Director Allison Arkell Stockman’s production at the cozy Source Theatre (where Constellation has been in residence for a decade) is bouncy and well-drilled, but it also reminds you that politically, “Urinetown” is utterly benign. Yes, it’s about thuggish cops and corrupt government regulation and rapacious corporate control of basic bodily functions during a years-long water shortage. The people have to pay to pee, and a new price hike has the rabble cheesed off.
But that’s just the slim loopy premise for a musical that’s really interested in musicals. “Urinetown” draws its comically terse tone from a long line of class and urban warfare pieces – “The Threepenny Opera,” “The Cradle Will Rock,” “West Side Story,” “Les Misérables,” etc. Tony Awards were nabbed by Mark Hollmann’s winking score, with lyrics co-written by Greg Kotis, and by Kotis’s tongue-in-cheek book, which features a paternalistic cop named Lockstock meta-theatrically explaining the show to a waif named Little Sally.
“Sometimes, in a musical,” Lockstock instructs Sally, “it’s better to focus on one big thing than a lot of little things.”
Gags like an opening number titled “Too Much Exposition” feel overextended, though, out as Constellation’s energetic production stretches to two hours and 20 minutes. The musical knockoff formula has been worked to bits since “Urinetown” surfaced (see “Spamalot,” “Book of Mormon,” “Something Rotten!”), and the sarcastic tactics now seem tame and tired.
Stockman delivers her reliable application of discipline and polish; the big cast snaps smartly across the small stage in number after number. A.J. Guban’s set and lighting design bring depth and a grim purplish hue to the rugged city street set of brick walls and mesh fencing, while Robert Croghan’s costumes create a cartoonish look for the poor folks’ tattered rags and the rich gang’s bright whites and money-greens.
Music director Jake Null’s five-piece band plays Hollmann’s score with a strident Brecht-Weill attitude, and choreographer Ilona Kessell makes the whirling ensemble look nimble as they leap and kick through “Act One Finale” and the inevitable gospel roof-raiser “Run, Freedom, Run!” Capable performances include Matt Newberry’s hollow grinning turn as Lockstock and Jenna Berk’s perky Sally, along with Katie Keyser’s plucky Hope Cladwell, daughter of the tyrant tycoon who runs the city’s toilets.
Christine Nolan Essig stands out as one of the few apparent song-and-dance-bred creatures in view, though, bringing belting force and a ripple of wit to the one-note hardbitten role of Penelope Pennywise (the fee collector at the bathroom gate). This hardworking “Urinetown” may zip briskly, but for a knowingly showbizzy show it seldom swings with intuitive rhythm and daffy sass.
Urinetown music and lyrics by Mark Hollmann, book and lyrics by Greg Kotis. Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman. Sound design, Palmer Hefferan. With Vaughn Ryan Midder, Harrison Smith, Matthew Aldwin McGee, Christian Montgomery, Patrick Murphy Doneghy, Amy McWilliams, Emily Madden, David Landstrom, Valerie Adams Rigsbee, Rick Westerkamp and Nicklas Aliff. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Oct. 9 at Source, 1835 14th St. NW. Tickets $25-$55. Call 202-204-7741 or visit constellationtheatre.org.