A VISION OF THE FUTURE? Urinetown.
Some scholars estimate an end to our current age, the “Era of Expansion,”as early as 2050. By this date, they project, current population-growth trends will put our consumption demands at two times what the Earth is capable of producing. After that, there might come something like what the older folks in the dystopian future of Urinetown, The Musical refer to as the “Stink Years:” chaos, starvation, drought, and lots of raw sewage.
Urinetown, The Musical
| Music and lyrics by Mark Hollman | Book and lyrics by Greg Kotis | Directed by Vincent and Denise Knue | Music Direction by Keith Witherell | Produced by the Lyric Music Theater, in South Portland | through March 9 | 207.799.1421 or 207.799.6509
But the stink years are just the backstory to this scathing musical satire (on stage now in a superb community production by South Portland’s Lyric Music Theater). Since the bad old days, a corrupt marriage of private enterprise and public policy has cleaned everything up. It has come, however, at the expense of some major personal freedoms. Most notably, in these bad new days, everybody must pay to pee — or face forced (and euphemistic) deportation to Urinetown.
And so we spend much of the play in the grimy poverty of the poorest pay-urinal in town. Here, fees are collected by tough Penelope Pennywise (Leslie Chadbourne) and sensitive young Bobby Strong (Brian McAloon), as the raggedy people in line count their coins and bounce their bladders. In gleaming contrast stands the corporate headquarters of Urine Good Company, which manages the urinals. Here, company president Caldwell B. Cladwell (Gerry Barnicle) lords over executives in jewel-toned futuristic silk, strikes deals with Senator Fipp (Bill McCue), and welcomes home his lovely daughter, Hope (Mimi Meserve), from “the most expensive education in the world.” We also see a lot of the sewers. This is where, after Hope and Bobby fall into starry-eyed love and moral outrage, rebellion is planned against the repressive order of her dad.
Urinetown is high satire on the dilemma of sustainability. It’s smart and unsparingly crude, and Lyric’s fine cast hits just the right notes — brightly hyperbolic, stylized, and snappy. McAloon’s Bobby and Meserve’s Hope both camp up their earnestness splendidly and with strong, agile voices; Meserve’s ingénue is especially mellifluous (and beautifully garbed in retro-sci-fi green). Another great performance comes from Chadbourne as the hardened Penny Pennywise (who naturally has a secret past). Michael Donovan, as Officer Barrel, clinches a character role that I won’t spoil. Directors Vincent and Denise Knue keep the pace careening along, with only the swiftest breaths for gags and pointed hamming. The ensemble rousingly performs the play’s varied score, with epic overtures and show tunes, Klezmer and dark-lounge numbers and gospel.
Production value is impressive in this show, with a five-piece live band (in which the clarinet provides a particularly slippery, near-human voice) and Don Smith’s gorgeous set and lighting. Huge half-arches, reversible and mobile, roll together one way to form the cruddy brick circumference of the sewer tunnel, then roll the other way to evoke the white splendor of Cladwell’s post-Stink capitalism (also the black-and-white skyscraper projections, reminiscent of Metropolis and M.C. Escher). Skewed apart, the set suggests a decrepit post-industrial vista, and everything looks stunning under, variously, lurid red gels, chilly blues studded with flashlights, and — most often — a spectacularly dingy yellow.
Dark it is, even as it is wickedly fun. And consider that its whole piss-fee proposition isn’t all that outlandish. Experts predict 9 million of us by 2050, and it’s no fiction that private enterprise, under government contract, already profits obscenely from public catastrophe. Urinetown, with sublime, decadent irony, offers no comfort at all. So by all means see Lyric’s marvelous production. Be gloriously bludgeoned by it. But don’t expect to drive away feeling safe and sanctimonious about your Prius and the worldwide spread of some soft-focus “freedom.” Nobody, as the rebel pissers belt out, is innocent.
Megan Grumbling can be reached at