The drought-plagued dystopia that Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman imagined in their 1999 New York Fringe hit Urinetown: The Musical is more civilized than the waterless Wasteland of Mad Max: Fury Road: The Movie, but it’s no less hilarious. The show scaled up to a Broadway run that opened the week after 9/11 and took home Tony Awards for Kotis’ book and Hollman’s score. (They share credit on the lyrics.)
Back then, Urinetown looked sharper as a Brechtian parody of West Side Story, Les Miserables, and musical theater in general than as a political satire. But as Constellation Theatre Company’s swell new production, reuniting many of the key players from its Helen Hayes Award–devouring production of Avenue Q from last year, reminds us, the show was just 15 years ahead of its time on that front.
It isn’t merely that Urinetown anticipated access to bathrooms as a political issue. Its villain, Caldwell B. Cladwell (a literally- mustache-twirling Nicklas Aliff), is an authoritarian tycoon who believes the brutal methods he used to restore order during “the Stink Years” of rapid environmental decay were justified, and who uses his pretty daughter Hope (Katie Keyser, commanding and funny even when tied to a chair) to put a kind face on his policy. Which is: You gotta pee, you gotta pay. Going in the bushes buys you a one-way ticket to the mysterious gulag known as Urinetown: The Location.
But Hope falls in with Bobby Strong, an accidental revolutionary who begins letting impoverished wretches use the filthy Public Amenity No. 9 free of charge. Vaughn Ryan Midder has great comic instincts as Bobby but is sometimes overmatched by his songs. There’s no trouble there from the rest of the cast. Matt Dewberry and Jenna Berk (like Midder, Avenue Q vets) are especially strong as jaded cop Officer Lockstock and adorable moppet Little Sally, the show’s narrators and occasional critics. As the hard-hearted, beehive-haired toilet manager Penny Pennywise, Christine Nolan Essig seems at constant risk of bursting into flame.
Speaking of friction: Urinetown features more elaborate and athletic choreography than any Constellation show I can recall. It’s by Ilona Kessell, a veteran, but new to the close-knit Constellation fold. The dance numbers are best when supporting players Emily Madden (also the dance captain) and Harrison Smith come to the fore, and they’re almost too crisp and energetic for parody. I hope the company is staying properly hydrated, in spite of everything.
The play runs to Oct. 9 at Source, 1835 14th Street NW. $25 –$50. (202) 204-7741. constellationtheatre.org.