For all its embarrassing ineptness of late, the City of Tulsa does have one thing going for it: the ability to provide a sufficient supply of water to its citizens cheaply and efficiently. In fact, Mayor Dewey Bartlett cited this as a major plus for the city in his recent Tulsa Metro Chamber-sponsored State of the City address.
And it's something audiences attending the production of Urinetown, presented by Theatre Tulsa, were likely thanking their lucky stars for as they filed out of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.
Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis' 2002 Tony Award-winning play, which opened Theatre Tulsa's 89th season, chronicles the implausible events of an unnamed town -- the sort you might find in any other musical -- suffering a 20-year drought. The short water supply has necessitated a rationing of water so extreme that private toilets have become illegal and people must "pay to pee."
The musical opens outside of one of the poorest, filthiest urinals in town, where folks are lined up, counting their pennies and performing variations of the peepee dance. One poor chap, Old Man Strong (Robert Young), whose son, Bobby Strong (Derick Snow), is the assistant urinal attendant, can't afford the fee and is arrested and carted off to the mysterious and menacing "Urinetown."
The public toilets are owned and operated by the Urine Good Co. (UGC), run by Caldwell B. Cladwell (James Christjohn), who pays everyone from the police -- represented by Lockstock (John Orsulak), also the narrator, and Barrel (Patrick Hobbs) -- to the local senator (Paul Henry) to ensure the people continue to suffer and he continues to profit.
Cladwell's daughter, Hope (Samantha Woodruff), takes a position at UGC as a copy girl and meets the dashing Bobby, who has begun to organize the townspeople in a revolt against Big Urine. The two lead the revolution, getting what they want but not necessarily liking what they get.
Theatre Tulsa does a good job with this hilarious satire. The acting and singing are excellent, especially by Orsulak, Snow, Woodruff, Christjohn and Leah Thomas, who plays sassy urinal attendant Penelope Pennywise. These actors do a good job of balancing their characters, giving them some sense of humanity while appropriately making fun of them -- they're never more caricaturized than the script's writers intended them to be. They deftly toe the line between humor and truth, so carefully drawn by Hollman and Kotis.
Theatre Tulsa's effort to scale down a typically large production to the smaller confines of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center's Liddy Doenges Theatre is successful. The show feels intimate while maintaining its mocking grandeur, and the actors are able to maneuver the space well, so it doesn't feel like they're trampling on top of one another. For this, I applaud director Cathy Gervasio.
Tiffany Kirkland's choreography is cute and fun, but the cast's ability to perform it varies greatly from actor to actor. The second act features a pretty good tap routine that would have been really good had the dancers been able to synchronize a bit better.
David Virilli's set and the costumes (though the program doesn't identify their designer) are appropriately dark and drab and complement the play's action and setting.
Lockstock warns audiences at the beginning of the production that Urinetown isn't a happy musical, and one would do well to heed his warning. The ending turns the whole play -- one seemingly bent at rising against the establishment, putting big corporations and their political cronies in their place -- on its head, and it's a bit of a slap in the face to audiences. Still, the humor never dies -- though everyone in the cast does -- and the audience is left with a smile and probably the same feeling about the current political climate that they walked in with: It's a corrupt mess, but there's not much we can do about it.
Certainly, the commentary made throughout the musical is more nuanced than this, but Hollmann and Kotis didn't set out to change the world with their show; they simply set out to make fun of it.
The musical genre also falls victim to the pair's captious pen, with the fourth wall completely removed and the singers mocking themselves as they go out of their way to provide what they know is unnecessary exposition.
This is a fantastic show, certainly worthy of its Tony Award, and done well at the community level by Theatre Tulsa. It continues Sept. 22 and 24 at 7:30pm on the lower level of 110 E. Second St. Tickets are $18 and available at tulsapac.com.
Also playing at the PAC this week is Grupo Fantasma, a Grammy Award-winning Latin funk orchestra that brings together the rich sounds of cumbia, salsa, old-school funk and reggae. Known for lively and engaging performances, the 10-piece ensemble provides an engaging interactive exploration of Latin American sounds.
The show, presented by Tulsa Children's Museum (TCM) Sunday, Sept. 25 at 2pm and 4pm in the John H. Williams Theatre, is intended to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. Across the hall from the performance, from about 1pm to 5pm, TCM will offer a handful of interactive kid-friendly activities to complement the performance.
Tickets are $10 at the PAC's website or the Second Street box office. More info about TCM is at tulsachildrensmuseum.org.
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