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ISSUE 120 VOL 8 PUBLISHED 11/17/2006

Deciding who has the privilege to pee: Talented cast of ‘Urinetown’ delivers hilarious performance

By Andrea Horbinski
Opinion Editor

Friday, November 17, 2006

It took me a while to realize why there were two port-a-potties covered in chains outside of the Speech/Theatre Building, but eventually I made the connection: “Urinetown,” currently playing in the Kelsey Theatre, is a different breed of musical from most St. Olaf shows of recent memory, and behooves a different sort of promotion. As if the port-a-potties outside and in the lobby weren't enough, as the audience entered the theater they were treated to cast members playing cops, complete with opaque sunglasses, ominously lining the sides of the theater. Other cast members, playing the urban poor, roamed the aisles begging for spare change.

“Urinetown is not a happy musical,” as the narrator/enforcer Officer Lockstock, played by the wonderful Daniel Greco ’09, tells the audience multiple times. The satirical show pokes fun at musicals in general and “Les Miserables” in particular, as well as, in this production, the St. Olaf Choir and numerous other ripe targets. The story tells of a town where a decades-long drought has so reduced the water table that personal plumbing has been outlawed and all residents must pay for “the privilege to pee” at public toilets owned by a private company. Needless to say, the poorest citizens and the politicians are oppressed by the cops and by the Urine Good Company's owner, Caldwell B. Cladwell. But anyone who refuses to pay to pee is summarily taken to ‘Urinetown,’ never to be seen again.

The musical supposedly centers around the efforts of one Bobby Strong, whose father is hauled off to Urinetown as the show begins, to organize a rebellion after falling in love with Cladwell's daughter Hope, who has just returned from “the most expensive university in the world.” But the real heart of the show is the interaction between Lockstock and the pig-tailed street urchin Little Sally, whose conversations move the story along while poking fun at the holes in the show's logic, plot and use of musical conventions. Without Lockstock and Little Sally (perfectly pitched as squeaky-clean and too smart by Megan Hadley ’10), the satirical aspects of “Urinetown” would fall flat. With them, though, the show manages to perfectly balance knowingness about its own theatricality and drawing the audience in through that theatricality.

“Urinetown” may not be a happy musical, but it is a hilarious one. I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard and so continuously at a musical, and this production was a welcome change from some of the heavier fare Kelsey has played of late. In one respect, though, “Urinetown” is just the same as every other St. Olaf production I've seen, in that the entire cast was excellent in their singing, performing and dancing, and the show was hugely enjoyable.

Eric Little ’09 and Martha Stuckey ’09, as Bobby and Hope, played their roles as straight men to the rest of the production with admirable sincerity. Josiah Telschow ’07 found the perfect combination of ruthlessness and creepiness, as well as suavity, in his hilarious portrayal of dictator Caldwell B. Cladwell, who can belt out a tune about the harshness of life with the best of them. Hayley Wender ’07 struck a measuredly stern note as the manager of the public toilet where most of the show's action takes place, and her interactions with Telschow conveyed both attraction and animosity well.

“Urinetown” was also innovative in its stellar choreography, which was worked out by guest choreographer Linda Talcott Lee. Talcott Lee is a former Broadway performer who is currently an adjunct professor of dance and theatre at the University of Minnesota, and her choreography for every song but “I See A River” was worlds beyond anything that's been seen in Kelsey in recent memory. Whether it was the cops dancing with their night-sticks in the strangely rhythmed, well-performed “Cop Song,” or Cladwell's lackeys dancing around him using huge golden coins as props in “Mr. Cladwell,” each dance made a different but equally effective use of the stage to expertly re-enforce the song's emotion.

I'm not sure whose idea it was to include an extended parody of the St. Olaf Choir and its conductor Dr. Anton Armstrong in the midst of the song “Run Freedom Run,” but the cast's literally pitch-perfect imitation of the choir and Little's nailing many of Armstrong's mannerisms brought the house down, earning the song several minutes of applause after its end. The parody was just one of many satirical touches in a show whose final line is the cast shouting “Hail Malthus!” in a surprising appeal to sustainable living. Rather than Malthus, the audience stood up to hail the cast with a fully deserved standing ovation after the curtain fell.

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