“Urinetown: The Musical” Is a Scathing Satire of Broadway Message Musicals on the Evils of Capitalism

Photo courtesy of Andrea Akin

PlayMakers Repertory Company’s Summer Youth Conservatory will perform a student production of Urinetown: The Musical, a scathing satire of Broadway message musicals on the evils of Capitalism, on July 19-22 in the Paul Green Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Dramatic Art. A splendid musical satire with a terrible title, Urinetown features lively music by Mark Hollmann, biting lyrics by Hollmann and Greg Kotis, and an acerbic book by Kotis.

PlayMakers mainstay and UNC Department of Dramatic Art professor Julie Fishell will co-direct the show guest director Jeff Stanley co-direct 25 high school-aged Summer Youth Conservatory participants, who began their five-week course of study on June 18th. Stanley is a professor at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT, and a director for the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT.

Although Julie Fishell admits, “This is my first experience with this particular show,” Jeff Stanley says, I was living in New York City when Urinetown was part of the N.Y. International Fringe Festival in the Fall of 2000. I did not see it then, but remember hearing about it when I directed a show for the Fringe in 2001, because by then it had transferred uptown and that was like a dream come true for any production of the Fringe. I remember thinking, ‘If Urinetown can move to Broadway, maybe my show can!’ It did not.”

Stanley adds, “I saw the Broadway production, but have not seen another production since. I have never directed it before.”

But Stanley says what made him want to co-direct Urinetown is, “First and foremost, I love comedy; and this show delivers that in spades. It has it all: absurdity, high-brow, low-brow, wordplay, pratfalls, double takes, the list goes on and on. It’s incredibly clever and reverent to the Broadway musicals it is constantly lampooning.”

He adds, “You can tell the writers are big fans of the conventions of musical comedy, but were also interested in their own spin on it. They are delivering a serious message as well about how we misuse our resources, but they lure the audience in with humor before slapping that message on them.

“Oscar Wilde presciently summed it up when he said, ‘If you’re going to tell people the truth, you better make it funny or they’ll kill you,'” says Jeff Stanley.

Co-director Julie Fishell says, “The music is just amazing, and the show is an irreverent reverie that examines a major paradox of living: survival at any cost, calculation, use of intellect or force is just plain impossible!”

Urinetown: The Musical made its Big Apple premiere at the 1999 New York Fringe Festival. Two years later, the American Theatre of Actors’ Off-Broadway production of the show, directed by John Rando, with musical staging by John Carrafa, opened on April 1, 2001 at the Chernuchin Theatre, where it became a big hit and ran through May 28, 2001. Urinetown won the 2000-01 OBIE Awards for Best Choreography (John Carrafa) and Best Book and Lyrics (Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis), plus the 2002 Lucille Lortel Awards for Outstanding Musical and Outstanding Choreographer.

The show made its Broadway debut, also staged by John Rando and John Carrafa, on Sept. 20, 2001 at Henry Miller’s Theatre, where it racked up 965 performances before closing on Jan. 18, 2004. Urinetown was nominated for ten 2002 Tony Awards®, including Best Musical. It won three Tonys: for Best Original Musical Score (Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis), Best Book of a Musical (Greg Kotis), and Best Direction of a Musical (John Rando).

Co-director Jeff Stanley says, “The story begins with the narrator, Officer Lockstock (Dylan Goodman) introducing us to the world of Urinetown: The Musical, which takes place in a town like any other town you might find in a musical. We soon learn that a 20-year drought has left a water shortage so severe that citizens must now use public facilities to take care of their private business.”

He explains, “Our story focuses on Public Amenity #9, where the iron-fisted Ms. Pennywise (Alex Pellett) employs a young dreamer named Bobby Strong (Adrian Thornburg) as her assistant. Bobby’s father, Joseph (Andrew Cook), cannot afford his morning business that day, and tries to convince Pennywise to let him in for free. After she refuses, he relieves himself resulting in a one-way trip to ‘Urinetown’ (the place, not the musical).

“The loss of his father and the new love of Hope (Laura Bevington) lead Bobby to rise up against Caldwell B. Cladwell (Dylan Peterson), the money-mongering owner of the Urine Good Company, which controls all the amenities,” Stanley explains. “It just so happens that Hope is the daughter of none of other than the imperious Cladwell. And, as they always do in a play, hijinks ensue. With the help of Little Sally (Olivia Griffin), Officer Lockstock guides us through the world of Urinetown (not the place, of course, the musical!).”

In addition to co-directors Julie Fishell and Jeff Stanley, the PlayMakers Repertory Company creative team for Urinetown The Musical includes PRC producing artistic director Joseph Haj, choreographer Missy Barnes, musical director Mark Lewis, technical director Adam Maxfield, co-scenic designers Michael Rolleri and Adam Maxfield, lighting designer Cecilia Durbin, co-costume designers Jade Bettin and Adam Dill, properties manager Aline Johnson, sound designer Michael Epting, and stage manager Sarah Smiley.

Co-director Julie Fishell says, “We are repurposing the set from Noises Off, which was the final show of PlayMakers‘ 2011-12 season. It has been modified for our production, but the basic architecture of it remains the same.”

She notes, “The set needs to accommodate several different locales: Public Amenity #9, the offices of the Urine Good Company, various street locations, and even a secret hideout. The play is constantly reminding the audience that they are in fact watching a play so we’ve tried to include some elements that make the stagecraft quite visible to the audience.”

Co-director Jeff Stanley adds, “The lighting will be of great help in identifying these various locales. We were very inspired by the productions of [German playwright and poet] Bertolt Brecht [1898-1956], who oftentimes used harsher, less pleasant lighting to continually remind his audience that they were being entertained. We hope to incorporate a dash of that inspiration so we don’t in any way suggest we are in a naturalistic world….

“The costumes are very important to this story,” claims Jeff Stanley, “because we have two worlds at odds: the Haves and the Have-Nots. We drew lots of inspiration from the 1930s for both factions. Obviously, the Great Depression offers a nearly endless world of inspiration of poverty stricken Americans. We looked at lots of pictures of Hoovervilles, breadlines, the Dust Bowl, etc. We contrast the world of the poor in Urinetown with that of the wealthy Cladwell and his staff. If we’ve done our jobs, it will be immediately apparent which team a character belongs to based on his or her clothes.”

Stanley notes, “We are theater professionals, and expect the young actors to behave as such. It is an educational experience, though, so we hope to teach as we go. Every good actor has a large variety of tools to choose from when working on a play and their character in it. We hope to impart the ‘why’ of what we are doing in additional to just simply the ‘how.’ How does each choice help tell the story of what your character wants, how they go about getting it and what stands in their way? We have to move fast though, so we throw a lot at the students all at once and we have to say, we are constantly impressed at how well they handle it. It’s always exciting to see them begin to run with ideas and techniques we’re working to offer them.”

He adds, “The style of the play is quite challenging. The comedy is very broad and requires crackerjack timing and careful attention. I also find the second act of the play to be very challenging; it’s like a runaway train and once it starts, it does not let up until the finale.”

Julie Fishell says, “The material itself is just simply brilliant. The music is fantastic and fun. The characters are a hoot, and the story is outrageous. As a director, you dream about working on such good material, because the possibilities of where you can take the production are limitless. It’s been really fun to mine this hysterically clever play with such a great team of collaborators and young talent!”

SECOND OPINION: July 18th Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel preview by Katie Marriner: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2012/07/a-world-without-free-restrooms; July 16th Chapel Hill, NC Chapelboro ® 1360WCHL preview by Michelle Lewis: http://www.chapelboro.com/–You-Gotta-Go—To-PlayMakers-This-Week/12456239?pid=252617; July 16th Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by Wes Platt: http://www.heraldsun.com/view/full_story/19342203/article-GETTING-THEIR-FEET-WET (Note: You may have to register to read this article); and July 3rd Durham, NC Triangle Tribune preview by Sommer Brokaw: http://www.triangletribune.com/index.php?src=news&srctype=detail&category=Arts+and+Lifestyle&refno=6870.

PlayMakers Repertory Company’s Summer Youth Conservatory presents URINETOWN: THE MUSICAL at 7:30 p.m. July 19-21 and 2 p.m. July 22 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

TICKETS: $15 ($10 students and children under 18 and $13 PlayMakers season-ticket holders).

BOX OFFICE: 919-962-7529 or http://playmakersrep.org/urinetown (click BUY TICKETS). SHOW: http://playmakersrep.org/urinetown.

PRESENTER: http://playmakersrep.org/outreach/syc. BLOG: http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.

VENUE: http://www.playmakersrep.org/aboutus/paulgreen.

DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://www.playmakersrep.org/visitorinfo.


The Musical: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urinetown (Wikipedia).

Mark Hollmann: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Hollmann (Wikipedia).

Greg Kotis: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greg_Kotis (Wikipedia).

Julie Fishell: http://drama.unc.edu/indiv_juliefishell.html (UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Dramatic Art).


Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This preview is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.

To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail RobertM748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TTR in the Subject: line.

To read all of Robert W. McDowell’s Triangle Theater Review previews and reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/robert-w-mcdowell/.

By Robert W. McDowell

Robert W. McDowell is a Raleigh, NC-based freelance writer, editor, and critic. He has written theater, film, book, and music previews and reviews for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, and Classical Voice of North Carolina, all based in Raleigh. In 1980-91, he covered business, industry, government, and education for (We the People of) North Carolina magazine, published monthly by N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry. In April 2001, McDowell started Robert's Reviews, a FREE weekly e-mail newsletter that provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of the performing arts in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, which includes Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and Carrboro. Triangle Review is the latest-and-greatest version of McDowell's original newsletter. (To start your FREE subscription, e-mail robertm748[at]aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) From December 1980 until September 2017, McDowell served on the board of directors of The Cinema, Inc., a Raleigh-based nonprofit film society formed in 1966. He currently publishes a weekly list of FREE advance screenings of movies in the Triangle area. (To have your e-mail address added to this FREE list, e-mail robertm748[at]aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.) McDowell also co-edited and supervised the production of Jim Valvano's Guide to Great Eating (JTV Enterprises, 1984), a 224-page sports celebrity cookbook; and he served as a fact checker for Valvano: They Gave Me a Lifetime Contract, and Then They Declared Me Dead (Pocket Books, 1991).