Theatergoers turned off by the title of the play “Urinetown” might want to reconsider. Despite the admittedly icky name, “Urinetown” delivers big on showmanship and spectacle in a NOLA Project production that opened Friday.
The 2001 Tony Award-winning musical comedy kicks off NOLA Project’s 13th season, a co-production with the University of New Orleans (through Oct. 14).
Written by Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis, “Urinetown” is set in a dystopian future where permanent drought has caused a severe water shortage. What little water remains has become a profitable commodity controlled by greedy villain Caldwell B. Cladwell (Alex Martinez Wallace), CEO of Urine Good Company, a corporation that oversees the privately run “public amenity” stations where residents must pay to pee. Those who can’t — or won’t — pony up for the privilege get apprehended by authorities and whisked away to the infamous Urinetown, never to be heard from again.
Drawing inspiration from Depression-era plays like “The Cradle Will Rock” and “Waiting for Lefty,” the show revolves around an unlikely working class hero, the outspoken Bobby Strong (Keith Claverie), who rallies the people to stand up against the corporation that threatens to squeeze them dry. But unlike those works of political and social activism, “Urinetown” is an aggressively tongue-in-cheek farce, where heroes, villains, and damsels in distress are all portrayed with the subtlety of an Austin Powers film.
The production’s success relies on multiple factors, but the most obvious is exceptional casting. Every member of the 19-person cast turns in big, physical performances that grab and hold the audience’s attention with dramatic boldness and moments of impeccable comic timing.
Wallace is the embodiment of petty greed, with slicked back hair, smoking jacket and ascot, and a booming voice. As Bobby Strong, Claverie is a formidable opponent in dirty coveralls and rubber boots, a big-hearted lunk with — inexplicably — a mangled Boston accent that’s dumb enough to be funny every time he hits it hard.
Other performances that propel the production forward include Patrick Hunter and Natalie Boyd as Officer Lockstock and Little Sally, who serve in part as the audience’s guide to the show, occasionally offering asides from the peanut gallery about the action on stage (including at least one barb about the show’s awful title).
As Hope Cladwell, the villain’s daughter and Bobby’s love interest, Maggie Windler is the picture of bright-eyed innocence, while Ian Hoch — in dual roles as members of the resistance — threatens to steal the show with his wild-eyed comic mania.
Under the direction of A.J. Allegra, the show maintains a high-energy pace, bolstered by crisp song-and-dance numbers that benefit from music director Ronald Joseph’s swinging four-piece band and rowdy choreography by Lindsey Romig. The imposing multi-level set by Eric Porter effectively reflects the crumbling post-industrial town and adds to the show’s energy as players move up, down, and around the theater.
The polished production values and powerful performances mask a few flaws that might be more obvious in a smaller-scale show. For all the wit and grit, there are few memorable songs in “Urinetown,” the biggest exceptions being back-to-back second act numbers “Snuff that Girl,” a snappy “West Side Story”-inspired tune led by Hoch and Hayden Guthrie, and the gospel-tinged send-up “Run, Freedom, Run.” The plot has some fun twists and turns but gets stretched a little thin over the almost 2 1/2 hour run time, though there’s enough entertainment to keep it from dragging much.
For those concerned about being awash in potty humor, if you can chuckle at the old Benny Grunch tune, “Ain’t No Place to Pee on Mardi Gras Day,” then you’ll be just fine at “Urinetown.”
WHEN: Sept. 29 to Oct. 14
WHERE: Nims Theatre
UNO Performing Arts Center
2000 Lakeshore Drive