Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 26
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
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HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL: Hope (Rachel Wenitsky, left, a student at the Stella Adler Studio at NYU and a Princeton native) and Bobby (Spencer Case, Princeton University class of 2009) are singing “Follow Your Heart” in the Princeton Summer Theater’s production of “Urinetown the Musical.”

Idealistic Poor Battle Villainous Corporation in “Urinetown;” High-Powered, Campy Musical Comedy Opens PST 2009 Season

Donald Gilpin

The following exchange, typical of the show’s self-mocking, satiric tone, takes place near the end of Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’ Urinetown.

Little Sally: I don’t think too many people are going to come see this musical, Officer Lockstock.

Lockstock: Why do you say that, Little Sally? Don’t you think people want to be told that their way of life is unsustainable?

Little Sally: That — and the title’s awful. Can’t we do a happy musical next time?

Yes, Little Sally does have a point about the title. But fortunately the silliness, the wild humor, and an appealing dose of song and dance prevail over the sardonic social commentary in this show that often looks like Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s scowling Threepenny Opera with an overlay of punning, wisecracking, and larger-than-life self-satire. In fact, Urinetown was the surprise hit of the New York Fringe Festival in 1999, continued to surprise the theater community as it moved to Off-Broadway in the spring of 2001, then became a Broadway hit in the fall of 2001, winning three Tony Awards and running for two years before its national tour. Numerous successful productions have taken place since then all over the world, and, yes, Little Sally, many people are coming to see Princeton Summer Theater’s current production — impressively high-spirited, polished, and running at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus for just one more weekend.

The program claims that this is the largest production in Princeton Summer Theater (PST) history, and it is the first musical they have staged in several years, but, more importantly, this PST company exudes talent, energy, commitment, and professionalism.

Urinetown will play on July 2-5, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and also at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday in the Hamilton Murray Theater. Call (609) 258-7062 or visit for information.

The cast of sixteen, an assortment of Princeton University students and recent graduates along with a dynamic infusion of NYU Stella Adler Studio theater students, is strong, experienced, focused, and riveting to watch. There are no weak links. Singing, dancing, acting, and comic timing are all first-rate. Sara Ashley-Bischoff, just graduated from Princeton University and headed to New York to pursue a theater career, has directed and choreographed this show with skill and savvy.

There is a happy marriage here between the witty, campy, up-to-date material and the youthful company. Commitment to these one-dimensional, larger-than-life characters, to the absurdity of their situations, to the exaggerated musical comedy tone is 100 percent. The pace moves rapidly and all production elements coalesce with precision. The one occasional lapse occurs in projection of the lines during musical numbers. The lyrics are clever, amusing, and well worth hearing, but not always comprehensible. Mr. Feyer and the members of the chorus could benefit from a bit more volume and articulation in their songs.

The production values — set and lighting design by Allen Grimm, costuming by Maggie Tominey and Ariel Sibert — are superb, complementing the ensemble with flair and intelligence. Mr. Grimm, a veteran pro from Arena Stage in D.C. in his third season with PST, has created a fascinating, inventive, and functional design, consisting of bright yellow, orange and lime green pipes of all shapes and sizes, along with electrical fuse boxes and a corrugated metal fence, all contributing to the impressionistic industrial décor. His lighting adds appropriately dramatic — sometimes melodramatic — effects and highlights the tone and action of the musical. Ms. Tominey and Ms. Sibert have assembled a rich, expressive array of costumes, exaggerated to just the right degree in depicting the excesses of poverty and affluence in the assortment of grotesque characters populating this strange world.

Music director Brian Gurewitz plays piano and deftly directs the pit orchestra — piano, percussion, reeds, trombone, and bass — with polish and precision.

The action takes place at Public Amenity No 9, a pay toilet. All the public bathrooms in town are controlled by a single, malevolent corporation that has bought off the police and the politicians and ensured the prohibition of private toilets amidst a devastating drought that has overtaken the world. As Lockstock (Billy Hepfinger) explains to Sally (Hannah Barudin) and the audience early in the show, “In Urinetown (the musical) everyone has to use public bathrooms in order to take care of their private business. That’s the central conceit of the show!”

The plot is simple, complete with appropriately named characters: the villain, corporate wheeler-dealer Caldwell B. Cladwell (Jon Feyer); his good-hearted daughter Hope (Rachel Wenitsky), who falls in love with the hero, Bobby Strong (Spencer Case), leader of a pee-for-free rebellion; stern officers Lockstock and Barrel (Kelvin Dinkins); the Amenity No 9 fee collector Penelope Pennywise (Abigail Sparrow), who carries a secret that remains hidden until the end of the show; and a slew of versatile, hard-working chorus members, most switching back and forth from scene to scene from corporate types to suffering, ragged poor people of the street.

As Officer Lockstock narrates the hilarious, surprising, and relentlessly campy proceedings, he is joined by Little Sally, a pig-tailed, fresh-faced know-it-all who helps the upbeat officer to set the spoofy tone of the evening in their send-up of romance, business, politics, and all forms of musical and political theater, from The Threepenny Opera to The Cradle Will Rock to Les Miserables.

Mr. Hepfinger and Ms. Barudin expertly lead the way, but no less adept, in the heroic-romantic vein, are Mr. Case, who is especially impressive vocally, and Ms. Wenitsky, the formidable and suitably starry-eyed ingénue.

The villainous contingent, led by Mr. Feyer’s Cladwell and his henchmen Mr. McQueen (Patrick Harvey) and Senator Fipp (Aaron Strand), provides a fearsome and comical antagonist. Harrison Hill, Casey Ford Alexander, Ryan Curtis, Michael Wurzel, Olivia Stoker, Sophie Maerowitz, and Alexis Rodda lead the eye-catching chorus, with detailed, distinctly memorable characterizations, striking intensity, and perfect pitch in capturing the show’s self-consciously campy tone.

So let’s hear it for the originality and clever, uninhibited silliness of Urinetown; for the bold, creative, talented and dedicated Princeton Summer Theater Company; and for the right to pee for all! There is no charge for access to the Hamilton Murray Theater restrooms, though there may be a line, but tickets to this show will be difficult to come by, so buy yours early.

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