The town at the center of the musical Urinetown is built on a drought-ridden, impoverished wasteland where you must pay to pee. However, the musical itself is built on other Broadway shows, even as it pokes fun at them. Houston local theater Art Factory takes good advantage of the parody and slapstick humor, even trying to update the material with varied success.
The show opens on policeman/corporate thug Officer Lockstock (Jared Barnes) and young street-urchin Little Sally (Julia Noble) outlining the story’s premise: a severe drought has led to Urine Good Company, owned by Caldwell B. Cladwell (Tyler Galindo) charging people to pee and making public urination illegal. Hero Bobby Strong (played by show director Colton Berry) leads—well, more like rides along with—a revolution after his father is taken to the eponymous exile colony Urinetown as punishment for peeing on the street when he couldn’t afford his fee to use the public amenity. On the way, Strong finds his obligatory love interest in Hope Cladwell (Ashley Cooper), Caldwell B. Cladwell’s daughter, and helps to overthrow corruption in his town.
The spirit of the show, and Art Factory’s production, is tongue-firmly-in-cheek. The show is pure parody, from “Act One Finale” copying many of its notes from Les Miserables’ “One Day More,” to a vocal riff in “Look At the Sky” that sounds suspiciously similar to Idina Menzel’s final triumphant notes in Wicked showstopper “Defying Gravity.”
Colton Berry gives a fun performance as the musical’s hero Strong, delivering many of his lines with a ham-embracing, brodacious vibe. His vocals are impressive and soulful, especially in Act II’s “Run, Freedom, Run.” Heather Hall also delivers excellent and powerful singing as Penelope Pennywise, the authoritarian operator of Public Amenity #9, the filthiest urinal in town.
One of the attempts to update Urinetown’s material was the villain of the show, Caldwell B. Cladwell, with Galindo doing an Alec Baldwin-esque Trump impression. The connections are there—ruthless businessman mucking around with the rights of the people below him for “caaaaash” (for best effect, repeat this with a moaning croon). However, after the initial, admittedly hearty, laughter from the audience, it feels like the impression is only skin deep, especially when comparing Trump and Caldwell’s track record on the environment. Perhaps Trump is just low-hanging fruit, or perhaps the Alec Baldwin take on him is just well-worn at this point.
Cooper’s Hope Caldwell eventually takes center stage and leads the revolution, but before this, her treatment at the hands of the male cast is horrendously sexist. These jokes, which include Strong sticking his hand down her shirt “to feel her heart beat,” are played for laughs but don’t quite land, instead coming off as tired and misogynistic. Perhaps that’s because Urinetown is attempting to parody Broadway for its treatment and portrayal of women, but the show doesn’t go far enough to truly make it satirical, instead landing in discomfort.
Some of the show’s sound mixing causes lyrics to be lost for the viewer, especially in songs with multiple singers or where a delicate balance is needed between the music and the vocals. Art Factory is working with a smaller space, which at times made the show felt a little cramped, but, overall, the production takes advantage of their smaller stage to break the fourth wall with jokes about scene changes and blocking. In one scene, the authorities fail to catch the rebels because, as Lockstock points out, the choreography has them running too slow.
Luke Hamilton’s choreography was excellent, especially in “Cop Song,” a number performed by Lockstock, his sidekick, Officer Barrel (yup, that’s a thing), and their fellow boys in blue. At one point in the song, the lights went out and the policemen danced and stomped, flashlights in hand, giving it a dark edge.
That dark edge runs as an undercurrent under the entire musical, as Lockstock stresses in the show’s final number, “This isn’t a happy musical.” Yes, the poor succeed in overthrowing the rich and corrupt, but it doesn’t fix their problems. In many ways, it makes it worse. Beneath the satire, socioeconomic commentary, and Trump jokes, Urinetown doesn’t fail to remind us that revolutions rarely end happily—even if it does so in the same comic fashion.
Thru Mar 1. Tickets $25. Art Factory, 1125 Providence St. 832-210-5200. More info and tickets at artfactoryhouston.com.