Mad Cow Theatre has opened its ninth season with a terrific production of the Mark Hollmann/Greg Kotis musical-theater phenomenon, Urinetown, a strangely titled work dedicated to the dismal proposition that we are all living in a world of unsustainable infrastructure and are hurtling toward a future of environmental disaster and societal collapse. How a show with such dire, Malthusian foreboding can be so bitingly funny is a testament to its creators' sharp wits and the tongue-in-cheek direction of Mad Cow's chief herder, artistic director Alan Bruun.
Urinetown takes place in the not-too-distant future, after a long drought has left the water table depleted. Because there is not enough aqua to go around, the use of toilets is severely restricted. Ruthless plutocrat Caldwell B. Cladwell (brilliantly played by the rich-voiced Ron Schneider) has cornered the market on pay privies and enforces his will on the populace via a bought-off legislature fronted by Sen. Fipp (Danny Villnow); a loyal gatekeeper, Penelope Pennywise (the delightful Gail Bartell); and a brutal police presence led by Officer Lockstock (the rubber-faced Eric Pinder), who also serves as the show's narrator.
When the people finally rebel, they find their leader in one Bobby Strong (James Mosser), whose father (Rod Cathey) has just been arrested and exiled to the mysterious Urinetown for peeing without paying the appropriate fee. The play's plotline then mirrors history's countless battles between the haves and the have-nots, propelling its characters to their ultimate comic and not-so-comic destinies. No musical would be complete without a love interest, and in this case it is the idealistic daughter of privilege, Hope Cladwell (Ashley Blake Fisher), who falls in love with Bobby, the proletarian hero, thus breaking with her father's stern and uncompromising worldview.
Although the thematic underpinnings of Urinetown are serious and compelling, the real genius of the work lies in its self-mocking attitude and its constant reminders to the audience via Officer Lockstock and the young waif Little Sally (Sarah French) that the play is simply an offbeat musical comedy and should be taken with several grains of salt. In this way, Urinetown's writers get to have their cake and eat it too: They have managed to promulgate a political point of view while draping their polemic in the ragtag costuming of a low-budget feature, with all its hackneyed conventions on display.
That being said, none of it would work if the play's score (ably conducted by musical director Robin Jensen) weren't so damned good, and if the acting and singing weren't so energetic, tuneful and precise. Add the absolutely marvelous choreography of Tara Anderson and Urinetown provides an evening of nearly unrestricted theatrical pleasure. So what if the story's outcome seems a little muddy? As one character opines, "People are happy, and that's the main thing."
The only element that makes Mad Cow's Urinetown less than a perfect 10 is its poor lighting design. Whether it is in the name of "atmosphere" or because the theater's difficult sight lines make the illumination of the show a challenge, there is really no excuse for a light plot that consistently cuts off the actors' heads, asks them to move from shadow to shadow, and spills more light on the audience's first row and the set's back wall than on the performers themselves. Refocus, please, so this very fine amusement can shine through.
Through Oct. 23
Mad Cow Theatre