Sunday, December 14, 2014

Roving Pittsburgher, It’s a Privilege to See the Conservatory Theater Company’s Performance of Urinetown

It’s a Privilege to See the Conservatory Theater Company’s Performance of Urinetown.

By Megan Grabowski

 A relatively new show, Urinetown opened on Broadway in 2001.  The initial response from theatergoers was overwhelmingly positive; earning Urinetown three Tony Awards in 2002.  More than a decade later, the show continues to incite glowing reviews.  The Thursday December 11 performance of Urinetown by the Conservatory Theater Company was sold out.  I sat elbow to elbow in a seat on the balcony of the Rauh Theater at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.  The audience was as eccentric as the story. Students with purple hair in torn jeans were just as abundant in the crowd as the older women in hip length fur coats.  What I didn’t realize before seeing the show, Urinetown is a musical rife with potty humor; is a quirky social and political satire that will appeal to individuals with a higher level of awareness or engagement.

The musical takes place sometime in the future, after a 20 year drought has caused a serious water shortage.  In order to combat the water crisis, a ban is placed on all private toilets.  In the fictional town toilets are owned by Urine Good Company or UGC for short, and require a fee to be used.  Two of the central characters, Penelope Pennywise and Bobby Strong work for Caldwell B. Cladwell, President of UGC, a corporation known best for their greed and corruption.  Under Mr. Cladwell’s supervision, “Look the other way as we run the company as we see fit”, Bobby Strong and Pennywise manage Amenity #9, the poorest and filthiest toilet in town.  Early in the show, Bobby’s father, “Old Man Strong”, is arrested for public urination because he cannot afford to pay his admission into the Amenity.  As Old Man Strong is carted off by two police officers, Officer Lockstock and Officer Barrel, to a mysterious place called Urinetown, he yells, “Remember me”.  Soon after his father’s arrest Bobby meets Hope, Mr. Cladwell’s daughter, who has come to work for the UGC.  Bobby and Hope quickly fall in love; Bobby is enamored with Hope’s ideals to just follow your heart as described in the beautifully harmonized song.  Hope is intrigued by Bobby’s honesty when he admits his guilt for not doing more to save his father from Urinetown.  

The story unfolds when rumors of an Amenity price hike spread among the citizens, especially Bobby and the patrons of Amenity #9.  The people who frequent Amenity #9 know they are in big trouble; they can barely afford the toilets for their current charge.  Soon a protest erupts and word of the rally reaches Hope and her father Caldwell B. Cladwell and the others at UGC.   Hope is surprised to learn Bobby is a leader in the revolt but because she is in love with him, she urges her father not to resort to violence.  She pleads with her father to look inside the rioters’ hearts.  A truly ruthless corporate rat, Cladwell sings a perpetually catchy tune Don’t Be the Bunny, where he compares the citizens of the anonymous town to bunny rabbits, singing,

                   “A little bunny at a toll booth
                    He needs a measly fifty cents
                    Our little bunny didn't plan ahead
                    Poor bunny simply hasn't got the bread
                    He begs for mercy, but gets jail instead
                    Hasenpfeffer's in the air
                    As the bunny gets the chair! “

By the end of Act 1, Bobby has kidnapped Hope and real trouble ensues.  Act 2 is full of plot twists and surprises.  Main characters die, the revolution is taken over by Hope and t
the true meaning of Urinetown is revealed. 

Although there is an abundance of humor and plenty of laughter throughout the show, Urinetown is not a comedy.  The theme is frighteningly real and the characters, while exaggerated, are none the less authentic.  The lighthearted nature of potty humor helps to balance the seriousness of the plot and the extremely catchy musical numbers, it’s a Privilege to Pee, Mr. Cladwell and Snuff That Girl, are weirdly enchanting.

My seat on the balcony allowed me to look directly above the stage onto the loft at the jazz band.  The sweet sounds of the sax and percussion billowed through the theater, setting the mood for the fictional world I was about to enter.  Lights above the stage read, Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health a complete farce from the set design which looks like an alley or a ghetto, with litter strewn on the ground and graffiti scaring the building walls.

Officer Lockstock, played by Luke Halferty, served as the shows narrator.  His stage presence emanated charisma.  His talents appear to be great as he wrapped up Act 1 with a scene summary in slow- motion movements; comical and accomplished expertise.  One of my favorite characters, Caldwell B. Cladwell, portrayed by Taylor Warren offered the audience a spectacular performance.  When I find myself hating the bad guy I know they are doing a good job.  Warren’s portrayal of evil entrepreneur combined with his abilities to generate laughter from the audience at just the right times is an indication of his prospects on stage.  The two leading ladies, Tara O’Donnell playing Pennywise and Morissa Trunzo staring as Hope Cladwell deserve recognition.  Whether the sound system in the theater was turned up too high, or the acoustics in the balcony were wonky, the high pitched squeals of O’Donnell made it difficult for me to see her as anything but the screech-er.  Portraying a cold- blooded character requires conviction in unique traits that must be expertly enacted on stage.  

Perhaps it was a directional thing, but de repetitive high pitched squeals did not convey the attitude of a callous supervisor hell-bent on enforcing the rules.  Trunzo, on the other hand, caught me completely off guard.  Her first appearance on stage did not indicate the strength of her voice.  Her harmonizing abilities, specifically in Follow Your Heart, were very lovely.  Her voice perfectly mimics the innocence of her character. Two other characters deserve a special mention. Eddie Layfield, Bobby Strong, a senior at Point Park University offered the audience a brilliant showing of his theatrical abilities, as vocalist, actor and dancer.  His skills were on spot, eliciting laughter from the audience as well as feelings of compassion and regret.  I expect to see his name on many Playbill’s in the future.  Additionally, supporting character Little Sally, played by Emma Feinberg portrayed her character as sweet and cute, just like a little girl would be.  She was a wonderful accompaniment to Officer Lockstock, the hard-headed cop forced to the harsh realities of the laws and Urinetown to Little Sally, the simple child, who in fact wasn’t so simple.  For a child, Little Sally offered the audience an honest perspective on what it means to be poor, and the real face of the victims of socio-economic injustices. 

Having most recently seen shows at the posh and glamorous Benedum Center, the cozy Rauh Theater was a welcome change.  The history of the Pittsburgh Playhouse radiates through the bones of the performers.  One thing for sure, the Point Park University’s production of Urinetown did not disappoint as a professional quality performance.  There are no cocktails at intermission but a nice café that offers soda and tea and coffee.  The affordability of tickets as well as the wide selection of various shows makes this a great theater for date night. 

Reviewed by Megan Grabowski

Positively Pittsburgh Good News Reviewer, Professional writer, Social-Media Junkie, Community Fundraiser and Pittsburgh Enthusiast.

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