A young man, full of hope for a better world, stands strong with only a song and the love of a beautiful young woman in his heart. The only thing standing in the way is the city’s evil corporate dictator, who just happens to be her father. With help from the poor, he can maybe bring the community out of despair.
Welcome to “Urinetown.” That’s right, it’s a musical satire about pee.
• Through Oct. 9
• Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington
•Tickets: $31 to $55
• (703) 218-6500 or sig-theatre.org
Led by visionary director Joe Calarco, the Signature Theatre production offers the first staging of the 2002 Tony award-winning hit outside of Broadway. And guess what? It’s not a stinker.
Taking place some time after The Stink Years, water is worth its weight in gold in this Gotham-like city. And what separates the rich from the poor the most is a toilet. Because of a 20-year drought, the residents are forced to pay to use public facilities in order to regulate water consumption. Those who disobeyed are exiled to Urinetown, a mysterious place where people go but never come back.
Old Man Strong (Steven Cupo) is the first to go, literally, when he breaks the rules at Public Amenity No. 9, run by the brazen Penelope Pennywise (Donna Migliaccio). As he is being taken away, he tells everyone waiting in line to remember him. His stone-cold son Bobby (Will Gartshore), who works for Pennywise, regrets not helping his dad and the slow-motion flashbacks throughout the play remind him of his decision.
With help from Hope (Erin Driscoll), Bobby finds his heart in the lovely duet “Follow Your Heart.” Thus, the reluctant hero is born. This is also the first of many scenes where Bobby’s shirt is ripped open for chest gazing.
“Urinetown” may appear ridiculous initially, but as the play continues, it grows larger in scope and even addresses social responsibility. The musical, by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman, is wickedly funny and surprising moving.
“Urinetown” also isn’t afraid to make fun of itself or of American musical theater in general.
Holding things together as the Narrator, Stephen F. Schmidt is chillingly amusing in a Tim Curry kind of way with his toothy ear-to-ear smile and devilish twinkle in his eye. At the same time he is also Officer Lockstock (yes, there is a Barrel character), who is frequently joined by Little Sally (the winsome Jenna Sokolowski). Their conversations help provide viewers with insight into playwriting devices and laughter. In one of their meetings, the Raggedy Ann-like character (who notes that she has many lines for a girl) questions why the play doesn’t focus on the solutions to the city’s problem: hydraulics and irrigation. He tells her that the play’s focus is on the big picture and not the details. Plus, it’s easier to write.
The Signature Theatre has assembled a strong, talented cast, some of whom are longtime company performers. The always delightful Sherri L. Edelen, who won a Helen Hayes award for the Calarco-directed “Side Show,” manages to make her bit role as a patch- and legbrace-wearing pregnant woman memorable. And Thomas Adrian Simpson as the money-hungry politician Senator Fipp is picture-perfect.
As the headstrong Bobby Strong, Gartshore delivers a hilarious and charming performance. Much of his role mocks the leading man (serious facial expressions, powerful stances and don’t forget the muscle shirts) and Gartshore just runs away with it. It’s a complete turnaround from his beautifully quiet performance as the widowed Japanese police officer in last season’s “Pacific Overtures.”
Driscoll as his leading lady is simply sublime. Resembling a musical Reese Witherspoon, she is both infectious and heart-warming. With her perky personality and halo of blondeness, Hope is just that in this Depression-like town.
For a show about potty humor, there’s not a lot of it, which isn’t a bad thing. “Urinetown” has everything one would expect to find in a musical like many before it (“Les Miserables,” “West Side Story,” “Phantom of the Opera”). There’s a love story, the bad guy, the oppressed and of course, a revolution. When Bobby leads his followers to battle, it’s almost like the fighters at the barricades in “Les Miz.” Except here, a mop stands in for a flag proudly waved.
Musical influences for the tunes run the gamut from the gospel-inspired “Run Freedom Run” to the jazzy “Snuff That Girl” to the standard soaring Act One closer. Buoyant and inventive choreography, by frequent Calarco collaborator Karma Camp, further enhances the vibrant crowd-pleasing numbers. In one number, hands pop out of the floor to move along to the dancers above and ultimately, finishes the rollicking song holding plungers.
It’s only fitting the Signature stage the gritty-looking show at its current home, which sits among a string of auto body shops on an Arlington road, before moving across the street into its classy new home in the Village at Shirlington next year.
Hopefully, the intimacy the theater is known for won’t be lost in relocation.
“Urinetown” is both big and showy, intense and introspective, and seeing it on the small stage is a wonderful way to experience it. And don’t worry theatergoers, there’s no charge for the restrooms at the Signature.