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Art & Culture

“Urinetown” ~ A Rare Misstep for Constellation Theatre

By William G. Schulz

On the list of mythical places created for Broadway musical theatre — Camelot, Brigadoon, Neverland — we also have Urinetown, a city in the midst of a drought and controlled by an evil corporation whose diabolical CEO has banned private toilets in order to extort the downtrodden populace for the privilege of simply going to the bathroom.

Jenna Berk, Amy McWilliams, Carl Williams, Patrick Murphy Doneghy, (l-r) Vaughn Ryan Midder, Matthew Aldwin McGee photo--courtesy Constellation Theatre

(l-r) Jenna Berk, Amy McWilliams, Carl Williams, Patrick Murphy Doneghy, (l-r) Vaughn Ryan Midder, Matthew Aldwin McGee photo–courtesy Constellation Theatre

Urinetown: The Musical, a hit from 2001 that won nine Tony Awards, – has been revived by Washington’s Constellation Theatre, a company whose ensemble acting productions combined with innovative stagecraft has delivered electrifying new takes on shows such as Equus, Metamorphoses, and many others.

Urinetown, however, is a rare short-circuit for a company known for entertaining, often deeply moving, theater experiences. With ticket prices that usually start at around $25 and staged at 14th Street’s Source where there are really no bad seats in the house, Constellation is proof that exceptional, affordable theater doesn’t have to mean a trip to New York City, or even The Kennedy Center.

Undoubtedly, Constellation will pack the house and rake in the money with this production that runs until Oct. 9th, and with an exhaustive eight performances a week schedule. A cynic might say that filthy lucre is the chief reason Constellation chose this sophomoric, potty humor-based musical to kick off its 10th anniversary season. I don’t see that logic, given the company’s record of packed houses and deserved critical praise.

Rather, this is a rare mis-step, an earnest effort by Constellation to provide relevant theater in an election year that could hardly be more fraught with compelling issues of social justice including income inequality, underemployment, a raging heroin epidemic, and appalling gun violence. In other words, this stellar company simply picked the wrong show.

Harrison Smith, Nicklas Aliff (center), Katie Keyser, Emily Madden, Rick Westerkamp photo--courtesy Constellation Theatre

Harrison Smith, Nicklas Aliff (center), Katie Keyser, Emily Madden, Rick Westerkamp photo–courtesy Constellation Theatre

For sure, Urinetown has all of the expected elements of a fabulous Constellation Theatre production. The remarkable cast includes Matt Dewberry as Officer Lockstock, Jenna Berk as Little Sally, Christine Nolan Essig as Penelope Pennywise, and Vaughn Ryan Midder as Bobby Strong. Their singing, dancing, acting, along with great comic timing is professional and practiced. But Midder, especially, at times seemed to reveal a lack of passion for the material. It was as if he was just trying to get through it, perhaps to reserve his powerful acting talent for something better.

Sound, lighting, sets — all of high quality, especially in Source’s smallish space. I worried before the show, for example, that the sound system required for a live music show would render lyrics and dialogue unintelligible. But this is not the case. It was spot on, and I didn’t leave the theater with my ears ringing.

As directed by Allison Arkell Stockman, Urinetown: The Musical probably did not present much of an opportunity for new interpretation. That’s because the book and lyrics by Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis simply are not much more than a shallow, two-dimensional tale built in haste to support the  writers’ immature notion of comedy. It is a predictable, us versus them mishmash of implausible scenes and situations milked for every opportunity to deliver a cheap joke.

(l-r) Harrison Smith, Nicklas Aliff (center), Katie Keyser, Emily Madden, Rick Westerkamp photo--courtesy Constellation Theatre

(l-r) Harrison Smith, Nicklas Aliff (center), Katie Keyser, Emily Madden, Rick Westerkamp photo–courtesy Constellation Theatre

Constellation notes that Urinetown is also a sendup of musical theater, but who cares? Satire based on appreciation and understanding can be relevant and worthwhile. Hollman and Kotis are all slings and arrows and little else. They shower the audience with this same level of contempt.

By the time revolt is underway in the lengthy second act and the corporate titans are about to get their comeuppance, I found myself wishing it would end soon so I could use the facilities and enjoy the nice walk back home.

“Urinetown: The Musical” is playing at Source (1835 14th St., NW)  through Oct. 9th. Ticket prices range from $25 to $50 and can be purchased online at www.constellationtheatre.org.For more information, call ( 202-204-7741).

Copyright © 2016 InTowner Publishing Corp. & William G. Schulz.

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