Whaddya call a cynical, Brecht-besotted musical that snarls its way through a dark story of corporate greed, government corruption, and the remorseless exploitation of the poor?
Hilarious, if it’s Urinetown, the fringe-born anti-musical that made such a New York splash back in 2001. No, wait: If it’s Urinetown and it’s staged as cuttingly as it’s being staged by Joe Calarco at the Signature Theatre. The jokes, it turns out, aren’t all that funny on the page, and the elbows the show keeps flinging in the direction of politics and showbiz aren’t that much sharper than those flung in any given episode of Saturday Night Live. But style and precision and commitment can turn a so-so satire into a sparkling sendup, and Signature’s production serves up style and precision and commitment by the bowlful. Also wit—and a wicked sort of relish that makes the whole business positively irresistible.
The story’s a sublimely ridiculous thing: In a nameless, drought-plagued dystopia not unlike the grimy Gothams of more familiar legends, a 20-year water shortage has made private bathrooms an unthinkable indulgence. Public toilets are the only option, going in the bushes is strictly forbidden, and with the monopolistic Urine Good Company keeping an iron grip on pissoirs and politicos alike, anyone who won’t pay to pee faces a short, swift trip to exile in the title ’burg—which may not be the penal colony everyone imagines. (Hint: Soylent Green is people!)
Enter empty-headed hero Billy Strong (Will Gartshore), who’s been working as an enforcer at Public Amenity No. 9, “one of the poorest, filthiest urinals in town,” and pretty Hope Cladwell (Erin Driscoll), the beaming blond daughter of the grasping CEO of UGC (Christopher Bloch). Inspired by Hope’s naive idealism (she’s been off “at the most expensive university in the world!” until quite recently) and galvanized to action by the harsh punishment that meets his father’s heedless violation of the no-shrubbery laws, brawny Bobby leads a people’s rising: “You made me to see, fantastically clear, when people pee free, we’ve nothing to fear,” he burbles to Hope in a stirring anthem straight outta Les Miserables. Need we mention it ends badly?
That’s one of the most delicious things about Urinetown, actually: There’s a smirk and a shrug tangled up in the snarling social criticism, a cheerful pessimism that mocks the pie-eyed, can-do, hope-will-triumph spirit of the American musical. Bobby’s revolution succeeds, but soon enough some of the shine has come off the socialist triumph; Hope morphs inevitably into a soullessly sloganeering chief executive presiding over a collapsing state, and the evening ends with a dehydrated population and—to the audible delight of a half-dozen glass-half-emptiers in the opening-night audience—a merry shout-out to Malthus, courtesy of the corrupt cop who’s been helpfully explaining plot points all evening.
Oh, yes indeed, the mixed feelings extend to the show’s structure. There are dead-on swipes at everything from Evita to West Side Story to Our Town, and in every self-consciously stirring staging gesture Calarco cooks up, there’s a knowing wink about how manipulative it all is. That bad boy in blue (Stephen F. Schmidt) keeps stepping out of the action to deconstruct, with a kind of menacing patience, various musical-theater expectations—ostensibly for the benefit of a grimy orphan girl who seems to know more about such things than he does, but really to rub the audience’s nose ever so gently in the lowness of those expectations. It’s all just about as coy and self-referential as it can be, but so savagely unsentimental that it never curdles.
Gartshore’s long been a Signature favorite, but he hasn’t always been one of mine. Here, though—he’s absolutely at the top of his game, I have to say. Billy’s tunes fit his handsome tenor pretty ideally, and Calarco has coached him into a physically uninhibited, comically confident performance so perfectly pitched that the look-ma-it’s-parody never tips into self-indulgence. It’s first-rate stuff. Likewise for the terrific ensemble around him: They’re all reading from the same page, tongues firmly in cheek but absolutely invested in what they’re doing—a balance that’s harder than it sounds to strike.
Donna Migliaccio turns Billy’s bathroom-tending boss into a Class A harridan with a heart—she’s in fine form, and just watching the huddled masses recoil from her high notes is worth the ticket. Bonus, then, that the admission also includes plenty of face time with Sherri L. Edelen’s wild-haired crone, Evan Casey’s loose-limbed, slack-faced vaudevillian doofus, and Jenna Sokolowski’s wide-eyed, lollipop-innocent Little Sally—the last carrying a beat-up baby doll so tragic it’s a comic character in itself. Thomas Adrian Simpson’s bought-’n’-paid-for senator steps in straight out of a Marx Brothers reel; Bloch’s ruthless capitalist gleefully waggles a cigar, which is doubtless just a cigar.
Calarco comes at the show with an obsessive’s appetite for detail—it’s the clean, crisp execution of his jokes, as much as their cleverness, that makes the evening—and a master parodist’s instinct for both the epic and the absurd. And a drag queen’s knack for budget spectacle: James Kronzer’s wooden platform set may seem minimalist, but it’s surprisingly flexible and thoroughly well-thought-out. Even the lighting and sound schemes, courtesy of Chris Lee and Tony Angelini, have a distinct sense of humor—who knew a spotlight cue plus a triangle chime could add up to such a big laugh? And Karma Camp’s triumphantly cheeky choreography steals arms from Alvin Ailey, angles from Bob Fosse, and, inevitably, whole assemblies of the unwashed from Trevor Nunn. Giving too much away about the last would be criminal, but let’s just say the mop sent me right over the edge, guffawing as I went.
Somehow the pace never flags and the jokes keep building, and by the time Amy McWilliams’ sweet Old Ma Strong lies thirstily expiring at the lip of the stage, listening to a chipper Hope exhort her to remember that “you are the river,” Urinetown’s pungent message has been made abundantly clear. Of course, savvy Little Sally has her doubts as to the marketability of a show about the audience’s unsustainable way of life: “I don’t think too many people are going to come see this musical,” she says woefully as she and Schmidt’s Officer Lockstock step to the footlights one last time.
Sweet, smudgy Little Sally: It’s a real pleasure to contradict you.
The Wildean quips on war and weaselly journalists, not to mention the bit about the cell phones, are directorial liberties, most likely. But they’re well-chosen pre-show warm-ups, especially given that playwright Moisés Kaufman stitched Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde together almost entirely from newspaper narratives, trial transcripts, and the memoirs of the men concerned. Washington audiences saw the play in an overupholstered Studio Theatre production some years back, and it seemed a smart if sometimes painfully slow take on a shameful bit of history. Now, with a fluid, fast-moving staging and a fine ensemble cast anchored by three remarkably confident students from the North Carolina School of the Arts, Theater Alliance Artistic Director Jeremy Skidmore makes a convincing case for the play as a durable addition to the canon—and for the moment it examines as a Western-culture watershed.
Skidmore’s light-on-its-feet production underscores the docudrama conceit with a book-strewn boxing ring of a set—it was the Marquess of Queensbury, he of the pugilists’ rules, who set London a-whispering about Oscar Wilde’s queerness, remember?—by Jacob Muehlhausen, lit with aggressive eloquence by Andrew E. Cissna. And the director points up the poignancy in Kaufman’s analysis with staging fillips that emphasize the human failings dominoing one upon another in the tale of Wilde’s downfall: Wilde’s fatal overconfidence, the privileged petulance of his aristocratic young lover, the craven hypocrisy of their peers, and the hollowness of Victorian “morality” all get outlined subtly but unmistakably.
Stepping off to the sidelines after a brief excursion in the present, a Wilde scholar (Dan Via) glares resentfully at Andrew Pastides’ Lord Alfred Douglas, whose selfish machinations, in Kaufman’s account, seem to have been part of why Wilde launched his seemingly suicidal libel suit. A waffling prosecutor (Chance Carroll) wobbles visibly, guiltily, when a hard-line colleague suggests that going easy on Wilde could confirm public suspicion about degeneracy in the ranks of London’s officialdom. In one of Skidmore’s fluid, fast-paced scene transitions, Cooper D’Ambrose’s Wilde even hands the gavel to the presiding judge—a surrender of a gesture confirming that he, as much as his uncomprehending countrymen, set the cataclysm of his trials in motion.
The staging’s devices aren’t always equal to its desires: An indulgent bit of slo-mo in Act 2 dissipates the tension Skidmore’s been working hard to maintain through the second and third trials—necessarily repetitive exercises whose ultimate outcome is all too clearly foregone. Performances are pretty thoroughly polished all round, though, and once the end is reached, an inspired bit of direction puts the focus squarely for a moment on the art whose allure was part and parcel of what Wilde’s attackers wanted to destroy. Wilde’s words, in the end, are what Skidmore leaves us with—words, and gratitude that they outlasted those who’d have silenced them. CP