Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri
Can you predict the success of a musical production based on the comments heard in the crowded ladies’ room at intermission?
If the show is Urinetown, and is produced by the Cider Mill Playhouse (CMP) in Endicott, then the answer is a resounding “yes!”
Waiting in line I heard, “What a great show! I love the music!” and “Lots to think about!” and “I know it’s supposed to be funny, but it’s sad, too. So timely!” And, from the chuckling lady who came in behind me, “How much does it cost to use the bathroom?”
That last comment is what the characters in the 2001 musical want to know, but, more important, why does it cost anything at all?
With a public “amenity” (bathroom facility) as its setting, Urinetown (music and lyrics by Mark Hollman, book and lyrics by Greg Kotis) deals with a number of serious, timely issues, but it does so hilariously. In reality, nobody has to pay to use facilities anymore, but people used to. Although pay toilets were a thing of the past by the time this show was written, the concept provided a septic tank full of other things to address: a severe water shortage, corporate greed, social responsibility, family loyalty, compassion, the fleeting nature of love and whether it’s a privilege or a right, to put it plainly, to pee.
There is no mention of poisonous lead pipes, and, if I heard it correctly, possibly just a passing reference to transgender bathroom use. Who could have predicted those issues in 2001?
You can’t let the self-proclaimed “awful title” deter you from seeing Urinetown. See, the story of “Public Amenity #9” is advanced by the narrator, Officer Lockstock, portrayed with precision by Aundre Seals, who reminds us more than once that Urinetown is indeed a musical, awful title or not.
Lockstock and Officer (yup) Barrell, played ably by Pittsburgh actor Dan Krackhardt, are in the back pocket of the corporate entity that makes its money on this basic biological need. If people are caught relieving themselves on the street, the pair carts them off to Urinetown, a place you don’t want to visit. Both performers are making their CMP debut in this brilliant, nuanced musical.
With rising fees to use the amenity, and no room for mercy, the situation is ripe for a revolution. Kudos to Anna Grigo, whose costumes for the amenity’s users, mainly homeless people who have no choice but to go there, echo those in The Hunger Games. I’ve never seen Hunger Games, but CMP Artistic Director Gail King Belokur, whom I happened to sit next to Thursday (June 9), pointed that out to me. There was a very effective use of tattered rags on the one hand and dapper dress on the other, once we met the executives behind the business.
Grigo was assisted by Owego resident and SUNY Fredonia senior Sarah Standinger, who is wardrobe supervisor and assistant stage manager. She will be serving as stage manager for CMP’s youth theater workshop of Beauty and the Beast Jr. and will direct Almost, Maine for Owego’s Ti-Ahwaga Players later this summer. Many recent grads and theatrical degree candidates in the area earn their theatrical chops at these regional playhouses.
Public Amenity #9 is owned by the UGC or the Urine Good Company … get it? Its logo, at least in this production, is strikingly similar to a three-letter multinational company with local roots — a clever nod to one of CMP’s sponsors, which makes all these shows possible. A theater company does not survive on tickets alone.
Urinetown, which opened June 2, is directed by Emily Jackson, originally from Dallas, Texas, who has assembled a strong cast of mostly young, very agile actors, dancers and singers who can do it all.
Niko Kaim plays the romantic, revolutionary lead, Bobby Strong, an amenity worker who falls for the daughter of the UGC president, Hope Cladwell, sweetly played by Danielle Newmark. At her bidding, Bobby listens to his heart, abandoning his duties at his job and setting up a wonderful conflict for them both. They sing well, hitting their vocal stride by the second act.
I am often amazed at how a vocalist in a musical can sound like a pop singer one minute and an opera singer the next, depending on the note she must reach. I heard this a lot during this show with each of the female leads including Newmark, Shannon Roma DeAngelo as miserly boss lady Penelope Pennywise, and Brianna Ford as Lockstock’s adorable sidekick, Little Sally.
When the cast is belting out tunes such as “Urinetown,” “It’s a Privilege to Pee,” “Run, Freedom, Run” and the dark but chipper anthem to corporate greed, “Don’t Be the Bunny,” led by Hope’s dad, Caldwell B. Cladwell, it’s easy to get swept away by the music. The senior Cladwell is played by CMP veteran Craig MacDonald, who has some good moves. His encounter with Roma DeAngelo’s Penelope is worth the price of admission.
Backing them up with a live soundtrack are the talented keyboardists Patrick Young (also the music director) and Jan DeAngelo; Nick Murray, Cooper Casterline and Pete Desalvo on percussion, and Carol Barker and Joann Peters on reeds.
Although the Cider Mill Playhouse now bills itself as the only Actors’ Equity house in Broome County, MacDonald is the only Equity member in the cast. Stage Manager Jessica McCoy is also an Equity member.
Familiar faces in this show, seen several times on the CMP stage, include the versatile and handsome Josh Sedelmeyer as the corrupt Senator Fipp, and Chris Nickerson as UGC executive/lackey/yes man MacQueen.
Lea Sevola (Josephine Strong/Old Woman) and Jordy Diaz (Old Man Strong/Hot Blades Harry) tackle dual roles, and both pull off the costume and character changes flawlessly. His Harry reminded me of Ben Stiller as he appeared in the film Tropic Thunder.
Rounding out the cast are five other actors taking on multiple roles: Joshua Wilde as Tiny Tom/Dr. Billeaux, Mary Herbert in a triple play as Soupy Sue/Cladwell’s secretary/Cop, Rebecca Skowron as Little Becky Twoshoes/Mrs.Millenium, Daniel Wisniewski as Billy Boy Bill/Cop and Madelaine Vandenberg as Bobbie the Stockfish/Cop.
It’s easy enough to talk about actors because we can see them and hear them, but it’s also the people behind the scenes who make a show worthy of the standing ovations that audiences give them.
I loved the scenic and lighting designs, well done once again here by Tyler M. Perry. Sliding brass pipes and red and blue fluorescents on the ceiling were all that was needed to evoke the whole sewer and cop car milieu. Amanda Werre’s work as sound designer is notable for the voices that come from another plane. Spooky!
Kathryn McGeorge was the props designer and the scenic change artist. Her clever use of plungers is memorable! The stack of porcelain toilets in Act II could have looked a little grubbier, but Mr. Cladwell’s executive “throne” is visually funny.
Steven Dean Moore’s choreography was great with a lot going on for such a small space. I saw Urinetown on Broadway some years ago, and while the stage was wider and deeper and there was room for a second level, the dancing here was just as fun to watch.
Credit also to sound engineer and mixer Dan Miele, technical director Aaron Michael Chang, technical consultants Luke Gerhardt and Alexander Pitt, master electrician Mary Lana Rice, assistant stage manager, light board operator Michael Belokur, carpenter Colin Moyer, assistant lighting designer Erik Herskowitz, assistants to the director Evie Hammer-Lester and Fatima Sowe, run crew Justina Brock, box office summer intern Mikayla Rhodes and development director Paul Sprecher, who is leaving CMP after Urinetown ends.
Everyone here gives 100 percent, and the cast is so large that you may want to see it twice.
IF YOU GO: Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 3 pm. Sundays through June 26, wrapping up the CMP’s 40th season at the playhouse, 2 S. Nanticoke Ave, Endicott. Box office hours: noon-6 p.m. Wednesdays, noon to curtain on performance days. Call 748-7363, or visit https://cidermillplayhouse.thundertix.com/.