You know you’re on to a winner when a musical knows how to take the pee out of itself. ‘Who would call a musical Urinetown: The Musical?’ Our hard cop narrator, Officer Lockstock, asks. It’s not the only witty self-reference or pun made during the latest transfer to the Apollo Theatre. You could let yourself simply be entertained by the witticisms, moments of comic epiphany and golden harmonies, but that would be to deprive yourself of the genius of Greg Kotis’ and Mark Holman’s writing.
Urinetown, it would seem, is both metaphor and reality for its hapless residents. Sometime in the future, following the ‘Stink Years’ and prolonged draught, Caldwell B. Cladwell’s corporation, Urine Good Company, restrict the population’s right to pee by having designated, fee-paying public amenities. Those who choose to ignore the law, or who can’t afford to follow it, are clapped in irons and carted off to Urinetown from whence they don’t come back. It’s as eerie as it is funny and I’m still reeling from the image of the shadowy, blood smattered victims who reappear to support the final reprise.
Huge pats on the back to David Grindrod Associates; the casting is superb. Jamie Lloyd’s direction has resulted in stellar ensemble work and a show that the actors seem to love performing, making it very enjoyable to watch. Evidently, effluence as a subject matter is somewhat grotesque and this is nicely reflected in the performances. Jenna Russell is just fabulous as Penelope Pennywell, commanding the stage with her highly drawn characterisation, and Marc Elliot as Mr McQueen and Katie Bernstein both have a mesmerising electricity. Jonathon Slinger is flawless as the deadpan narrator, and some of the best lines in the show are in the wise-cracking interaction between him and adorable Karis Jack as Little Sally, whose voice is phenomenal. Rosanna Hyland oozes fresh innocence for her reprised role of Hope Cladwell, and shines as much for her comic timing as for her vocal tone. Matthew Seadon-Young is deservedly cast as principal male Bobby Strong, naive but likeable, showcasing his facility for different musical genres.
Although the principal voices seem a little tired in the first act, they come back strong after the interval and in general the music is lyrically wonderful and playfully performed. Numbers such as, ‘Don’t be the Bunny’ and ‘Snuff that Girl’ are off-the-wall and compellingly catchy, standing out also for their choreography next to those more simply staged. The gospel-styled ‘Run, Freedom, Run’ gets top trumps and is even more delightful for making a joke out of the rhapsodic applause it receives.
As well as its sharp attention to comic detail, Urinetown: The Musical needs to be seen for its retelling of an age old story; the wealthy few oppressing the disempowered majority. It resonates even more strongly for its contemporary relevance against our backdrop of climate change and declining natural resources. It doesn’t give us an easy answer either. Political idealism proves corruptible or weak when not grounded in reality, and often heroes seeking justice are crushed. As Lockstock says, this isn’t a happy musical, despite its happy music. It is, however, a bloody good one.