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'Urinetown' Provides Relief for Audiences

Sarah Marx reviews "Urinetown," performed by St. Andrew's Episcopal School.

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Jacob Horn, as police Officer Lockstock, leads the cast in a salute to a political economist who determines that the population is growing too fast. (Photos courtesy of Jonathan Burket)

Rich girl meets poor boy, and it's love at first sight -- sparkling in the midst of a populist revolution. The rousing chords are reminiscent of a certain blockbuster musical, and even the red flag flying over the masses looks suspiciously familiar, until you take into account that the lofty ideal at stake is the all-important "privilege to pee."

The urgent need to relieve oneself is the basis of "Urinetown," staged with daring and wit at St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Potomac.

Despite an ill-timed Broadway opening -- only a few days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- the politically incorrect "Urinetown" was nominated for 10 Tony awards and won three.

The savvy satire pokes fun at capitalism and the musical theater genre as it chronicles the love story of wealthy ingenue Hope Cladwell (played by Christine Ash) and toilet attendant Bobby Strong (Jesse Schellenger). In the face of a devastating drought, Hope's tycoon father (Ben Wald) has outlawed private urination and established overpriced public latrines. Led by Bobby, the full-bladdered poor begin to rebel against the Draconian pee fees.

As the noble Bobby, Schellenger showed off an impressive vocal range, most notably in the gospel-tinged "Run, Freedom, Run." As his romantic foil, Ash blended gentleness and just the right measure of "dumb-blonde" naiveté.

In an exceptionally well-constructed framing device, two of the plot's minor characters -- the hard-bitten Officer Lockstock (Jacob Horn) and lovable Little Sally (Alex Lis-Perlis) -- periodically break the fourth wall, injecting the plot with exposition, narration and dozens of clever one-liners.

Horn's performance was among the production's highlights. Charismatic and gifted with a smooth baritone, Horn lit up the stage at every entrance, particularly when paired with Lis-Perlis's charming, spot-on Sally. The chemistry between the two never failed to enliven the proceedings.

Also notable was a smattering of actors in more minor roles, proving the age-old aphorism that there are "no small roles." Carly Greenspan's sky-high soprano voice and brassy mannerisms brought life to restroom warden Penelope Pennywise, Joey Schepis's doomed Old Man Strong was a touchingly pathetic figure and, as the near-psychopathic Hot Blades Harry, David Bridgeman boasted a terrific pair of dancin' feet. Some performers lacked necessary vocal finesse, and others struggled with facial expressions and energy, but the many featured actors of "Urinetown" always kept the story going.

Sequestered behind a scrim, the St. Andrew's orchestra nevertheless managed to do admirable work. The stalwart musicians showed mastery of a highly difficult score -- all the more remarkable because, unlike most high school orchestras, they were led and conducted entirely by students.

Near the end of "Urinetown," Officer Lockstock expresses faith in the show's chances of success: "Don't you think people want to be told that their way of life is unsustainable?" Of course they don't -- and the tepid response to modern environmental crises makes that all too clear.

Yet, dripping with engaging performances and a stream of comic gold, St. Andrew's production of "Urinetown" made social consciousness a touch more palatable.

By Washington Post Editors  |  February 26, 2009; 11:35 AM ET
 
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