This musical is unusual in at least two respects: it was both cancelled and then remade by 9/11, and it must have one of the most unlikely scenarios of any musical, which itself is saying a lot.
Cancelled after its press night on 10 September 2001, it was then revived as the escapist musical New York flocked to after theatres reopened and became the most successful work of its creators. And seeing it twenty years on its satire of big business, environmental abuse and the degrading treatment of those in poverty has if anything grown sharper and more pertinent. It is an ideal vehicle for training students and here receives a fine production guided by experienced professionals.
Years of water shortages have led to high prices imposed on the population just for the ‘privilege to pee.’ This is essentially a racket run by a company (UGC – Urine Good Company) in cahoots with the state that embezzles the funds instead of reinvesting in environmental improvements. The impoverished population, driven beyond endurance, rebelled by Bobby Strong, a young man who has seen his father dragged off to ‘Urinetown’, which turns out to be an untimely end. He has struck up a romance with the boss’ daughter, Hope Caldwell, whom the rebels kidnap. The rebellion succeeds ultimately, but in a finely balanced conclusion, we learn that the reign of idealism turns out to be no better for the people than the dictatorship of corruption. The writers resist the tug within every musical towards a happy ending and the durability of the show as satire is all the more robust for it.
There are some fine performances here though it is very much a show of two halves. The first half has a lot of well-meaning exposition, and it is really only the upbeat numbers for the baddies that completely engage the audience and get your feet tapping. These are excellently performed by Kishore Walker as the boss of UGC, all slimy charm and preening self-regard, and his cynical employees, especially Boni Adeliyi playing his sidekick Miss Pennywise, and Matthew Broome, as a policeman and occasional narrator, all Ray-Bans and knowing swagger. The rest of the cast come into their own in the second half, which is by the far the more effective dramatically, while also containing the best music for soloists and chorus. Tyler-Jo Richardson and Sarah Slimani offer multi-layered and well-sung renditions of the lead roles, full of romance in the ballads but also able to turn the mood on a sixpence into something ironic. They are very ably supported particularly by Aaron Gill and Frankie Hart. There is some fine ensemble singing and excellent choreography from Vicki Igbokwe. In fact, there is so much going on at times you want the scenes to be run again to gain the full impact.
This is all enabled by flexible staging on different levels which leaves plenty of room for manoeuvre on the ground and ensures swift scene changes. The five-piece band is placed above the set so we can see and hear their accomplished performance of a complex score, all held together by experienced musical director Steven Edis. Tight direction, very necessary in such a fast-moving satire, comes from Ashley Zhangazha, an alumnus of the Guildhall School, whose own career illustrates what a fertile seedbed of talent it has become.
This is a demanding show to put on that could easily misfire without the sort of pacy, incisive production it receives here that reflects very well on all those involved.
- Music & Lyrics: Mark Hollmann
- Book & Lyrics: Greg Kotis
- Director: Ashley Zhangazha
- Photo credit: Mihaela Bodlovic
- Cast includes: Boni Adeliye, Matthew Broome, Aaron Gill, Frankie Hart, Tyler-Jo Richardson, Sarah Slimani, Kishore Walker
- Milton Court Theatre
- Until 19 February 2022
- 7.30 pm