I usually submit my reviews on the day I see the show. I offer this observation not as some badge of pride that I’m able to throw together 750 words between the curtain going down, and midnight, but because last night I went to see Urinetown, at The St James Theatre in Victoria, and was so genuinely conflicted by the disparity between the evening I’d had and that evidently being enjoyed by my fellow audience members that I felt the need to sleep on my feelings just to be sure that I wasn’t about to give an inaccurate account of my experience.
I initially thought last evening and, having reflected on the matter continue to think, that there are some very concerning problems with Urinetown.
With the opening night underway even as I write this, I predict some very favourable five star reviews in the press tomorrow, along with glowing references to it being the new Book of Mormon, and in truth it does share a lot, at least musically, with that show.
Both are de facto revues, with each musical number plundering the twentieth century’s stylistic back catalogue as the moment dictates. Like The Book of Mormon, Urinetown never really finds a voice of its own, so we have an overture channelling Kurt Weill, a song, ‘Snuff That Girl’, in pure 1940’s swing, a gospel number ‘Run Freedom Run’, etc. All very well executed, and all pastiche.
However where The Book of Mormon is a clear story, well told, this is not.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t enjoyable and noteworthy individual elements. There are. Not least Jamie Lloyd’s magnificently inventive staging, and Ann Yee’s endlessly original and fluid choreography on Soutra Gilmour’s eye-poppingly good set which, given it’s size and evident cost in the cramped auditorium at The St James, must signal a wish, if not a fully existing plan, to take everything along to a West End playhouse at the earliest available opportunity.
It’s difficult to imagine a better cast too, headlined by Richard Fleeshman as the notional protagonist, urinal attendant (with a name like Urinetown where did you think it was set?) Bobby Strong. The extra years since the ill-fated Ghost, have turned him from a former TV actor into a genuine leading man with a commanding stage presence.
Taking the role of what is effectively the leading lady, is Jenna Russell, almost unrecognisable from last Summer’s Merrily We Roll Along.
Simon Paisley Day as Caldwell B Cladwell is suitable evil as the unscrupulous capitalist seeking to profit from the environmental Armageddon which the show has as its central conceit, though I was rather bemused by the presence of Marc Elliot, as Mr McQueen, principally as the role is tiny, and could have been doubled by a member of the chorus. Still, I guess we all have to work to eat.
I won’t name check the rest of the large, and excellent, cast. Suffice to say they perform magnificently.
So, what are those very concerning problems I mentioned? Well, it’s like this…
I was just a bit…bored by the whole thing.
It was certainly through no fault of the actors. Thank you cast. You were great. And it wasn’t because of the title of the show, or indeed its subject matter, though I suspect that both will prove something of a disincentive to coach party audiences when and if it moves to a more central home.
No, I was bored because I wasn’t able to engage on an emotional level with the protagonists. Not their fault. It was the fault of the writers.
We find out much too late in the show who it is we’re supposed to be rooting for, and when we do we don’t really know what he wants.
On top of that the show is structured in such a way that almost every number in engineered to elicit a rapturous ovation at the end. This has the cumulative effect of meaning that the show is played out at such a consistently high level of emotional intensity that it is just plain tiring to watch, and that’s on top of several of the numbers, including the Act One Finale, outstaying their welcome by what seemed like minutes…
This show won multiple Tony Awards on Broadway, and there is a lot of invention, humour, and style to the writing, which is hip and achingly cool in places. However, it also only ran for three years on Broadway, meaning it was hardly a mega-hit.
There was a standing ovation at the end, but it was one manufactured by the reprising of one of the show’s most upbeat numbers, not because of a groundswell of emotion from the audience.
I doubt the writers will think they need to change a thing about it. I wish they would, as they then genuinely might have something to rival The Book for Mormon. As things stand, they don’t.