Urination celebration

Michael Burgner

The forces of good and evil are always at odds with each other. Cops chasing robbers and knights fighting dragons are the norm, but this struggle is an everyday occurrence throughout society. They fight over freedom, conscience and power, but feces?

“Welcome to Urinetown. No not the place, of course, the musical.”

And with a flourish of song and dance, Urinetown: the Musical makes the fight for bathroom privileges a reality.

“Urinetown is at heart a story of good versus evil,” says the show’s director, Communication senior Sean Carroll. “But it completely twists the essence of this struggle in that it takes a traditional musical and turns it upside down. It shows you what a traditional musical should be and does the opposite.”

A hit Broadway musical, this show chronicles the story of Urinetown, a city where water shortages force the citizens to pay to pee. Bobby Strong, portrayed by Communication sophomore Adam Kantor, is a poor boy with a conscience and a thirst for freedom. Hope Cladwell, played by Communication junior Rachel Frankentham, is the heiress to a profit-hoarding corporation, but her conscience gets in the way. The unlikely pair fall in love and spark an uprising that turns Urinetown upside down. Produced by Arts Alliance, Urinetown balances real and ridiculous in a comedy that is bizarrely dark and light-hearted at once.

“Urinetown draws from every musical that defines musical theater for our generation,” Carroll says. “It’s great because it parodies all types of theatre. It parodies life and society and shows you that there’s humor in everything, you just have to look at the right way.”

Grim-faced characters sing with dark overtones and race frantically around the stage. But despite the dark tone, the characters never seem to take themselves too seriously. Even when the chief of police, portrayed by Communication senior Michael Rosenblum, sings about power abuse, the scene is playfully designed.

“We wanted to put together a show that was dark but entertaining and funny at the same time,” says the show’s producer, Communication sophomore Kristin Johnson. “We wanted to get Northwestern students excited about Arts Alliance’s upcoming season. So we started it off with a bang, with Urinetown.”

At the end of the first act, the poor and rich of Urinetown meet in what appears to be the climax of the conflict. As the two sides take turns stomping, singing, dancing and running at each other in a take on West Side Story, the music continues to crescendo. As the beat reaches its peak, a strobe light begins to flash, all of the actors transition into slow motion but continue to move towards a clash.

“So many musicals alienate the audience, but Urinetown allowed us to bring the audience in,” Carroll says. “We wanted to build a theatre, rather than a set, so we could integrate the audience into the piece.”

The cast built two opposite stages: the gold and glitter of the corporate world on one side and the dirt and grime of the streets on the other. The two are split down by a long, thin runway. When the action is focused on one stage, or the runway, cameos and flashbacks are injected on the opposite side. As the action bounces back and forth surprises are always around the corner.

“We did not want the audience to be focused one set and get bored,” Carroll says. “We tried to vary the action from stage to stage so that we kept the audience on edge at all times. It plays out like a tennis match, with the action switching from stage to stage.”

With parts reminiscent of the “previously” and “up next” segments of popular television shows, the narrator, also portrayed by Rosenblum, updates the audience on Urinetown’s happenings at the beginning, middle and end of the piece. Without abandoning his onstage persona, he speaks directly to the audience, enhancing the show’s storytelling vibe, while the other characters remain frozen onstage.

“There is a tongue-in-cheek aspect of the plays humor that forces you to abandon traditional acting techniques,” Rosenblum says. “As actors we give a little wink to the audience to tell them that we are having fun doing a show and want you to have fun too.”

In a scene reminiscent of Grease, Bobby Strong leads Urinetown’s poor in a song and dance with quick verses, snapping and background humming. In the same song, Bobby turns composer and leads his cohorts in a glee club display, with the other actors separating into vocal groups. Finally the song takes on a gospel church quality, with tambourines setting the pace, arms shaking and coordinated clapping.

“Urinetown challenges every actor on stage-from singing to dancing to acting-you are forced to do so much,” Rosenblum says. “This show demands every last ounce of effort from every single actor. The result is that every cast member gives everything they have and the results are truly special.”

Urinetown: the Musical is playing at Shanley Pavilion Thursday, Sept. 29 through Saturday, Oct. 1. Tickets are $5 for students and $10 for general admission. Tickets and showtimes are available online at www.urinetown.cjb.net or at the Norris Box Office.

Medill junior Michael Burgner is the PLAY theater editor. He can be reached at [email protected]