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Theater: Urinetown, the Musical
2006-04-12

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Playwrights: Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis

At: The Mercury Theater

Phone: ( 773 ) 325-1700; $45-$48.50

Open Run

BY JONATHAN ABARBANEL

By the time regular theatergoers read this, they may have seen glowing reviews in other papers for Urinetown, the Musical. They're all true—this Urinetown is a smart, sassy and intimate version of the surprise Broadway hit that was written here in Chicago. This Urinetown is what the New York producers were too foolish to do when they brought the national tour of the show to town for two off-target and undersold weeks in downtown Chicago. If they'd had the imagination to stage the show Off-Loop—say, at The Vic or Royal George or Metro or Lakeshore—they'd still have a hit running here.

Urinetown is the musical comedy that simultaneously makes fun of and celebrates musical comedy formulae, in an unexpected story about a city with a water drought so severe people must pay to pee or otherwise flush a toilet. The approach is half satire and half homage, especially in the bright and eminently appealing musical score that draws from diverse musical styles and in staging that spoofs Les Miz, Evita, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof and Titanic. Foremost, however, Urinetown borrows from composer Kurt Weill and poet Bertolt Brecht to create a self-narrated proletariat musical that comments on a real social issue. In this case, the comedy about peeing covers a tale of corporate rapacity and despoliation of the natural environment which is too true to be good.

Director and producer Tom Mullen, a former New York theater guy, co-founded the Mason Street Warehouse in Saugatuck several years ago, and tried out his version of Urinetown there last summer. Mullen and choreographer Brian Loeffler have adapted many of the design and dance ideas of the Broadway production and scaled them down, but not by much. Their cast of 16, backed by a cooking four-piece band ( Michael Sobie, musical director ) uses every inch of the Mercury stage. Without a conventional orchestra pit between stage and audience, the show really provides an exciting in-your-face experience that even dazzles at moments with its energy and panache.

Mullen has assembled an altogether fine ensemble of Chicagoans and New Yorkers, headed by Michael Buchanan and Tamara Spiewak as Bobby Strong and Hope Cladwell, the lead couple. Bright, eager and faux-naive, they both have voices that don't quit ( especially Buchanan, in the largest singing role ) and have style to spare. Jon Frazie, as cynical Officer Lockstock and Roni Geva as waif-like Little Sally are just about perfect as the self-aware narrators. Additional strong support comes from Michael Accardo as the villainous urine mogul Cladwell Caldwell, and Christine Sherrill as the soaring belt mezzo torn between forces of repression and liberation.

Urine for a good time with this Urinetown, the Musical.


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