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26 April 2009


Maybe the MX is going to keep these reviews coming, Let's hope so.

Urinetown the Musical at Theatre UNCA
By John Crutchfield on 04/24/2009

I once cautioned a friend of mine who was coming to see me perform in a production of Twelfth Night some years ago at Appalachian State University, to keep in mind that for college theatre productions, the show’s educational value was at least as important as its aesthetic — and certainly its commercial — value. The main purpose of such productions is to provide an educational experience (however defined) for the students; and depending on the program, this is not necessarily the same thing as putting on the strongest show possible in artistic terms.

I assume this is one reason why high school and college theatre departments so often do Broadway musicals. Apart from the variety of specific skills required of the performers, such productions demand a massive coordinated effort among actors, musicians, dancers, set and costume designers, lighting and sound designers, stage hands, etc., to say nothing of the staff of directors. The musical, one might say, is another great symbol of American Democracy. But on second thought, so is The Pequod.

In any event, I have little doubt that the students involved in the current production at UNCA (and there are lots of them), are learning a tremendous amount from this experience. They obviously love doing the show, and through much of it, their enthusiasm is enough to carry the audience along.

The play, Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’s scrappy hit, Urinetown, arose from the pungent July heat of the New York Fringe Festival in 1999 to become one of the most celebrated new musicals on Broadway in 2001. It ran continuously at the Henry Miller Theatre until June of 2004. Above all, critics praised it for its meta-theatrical wit (c.f. Officer Lockstock: “You’re too young to understand it right now, Little Sally, but nothing can kill a show like too much exposition”), and was seen to present a rather acerbic satire of American capitalism, populism, government bureaucracy and corporate greed.

It’s the satiric element, manifested in the play as irony, that is most interesting, since in its structure (the so-called “non-happy-ending” notwithstanding) the play is entirely conventional. Performing it thus presents certain challenges that go beyond those usually associated with musicals. The performers must not only sing, dance and (yes) act; they must also — and this is absolutely essential — refrain from playing the irony. Unfortunately, self-restraint is not something one expects many college actors (or actors at all, for that matter) to be good at without strong directing. The director has to help the actors see that the plot and dialogue are already doing the work of the satire. Their job, as performers, is to commit to their characters’ intentions in the scene, and play it straight.

This sounds simple enough in theory, but in practice is incredibly difficult — especially in an age (and age-group) where irony is, as it were, the default setting. Director Rob Bowen and his colleagues deserve praise for challenging their students to meet the demands of such a sophisticated play. And the result is, perhaps not surprisingly, mixed.

The play is set in a dystopian world where, in an effort to conserve water, private toilets have been banned, along with public urination, while a single mega-corporation (“Urine Good Company”) owns all public bathrooms—for the use of which a fee is charged. (According to legend, the conceit has its origins in writer Kotis’ experience traveling “on a budget” in France.) As a dramatic premise, this sounds serviceable enough. But Urinetown, despite its title, is in fact a rather antiseptic play. Its self-conscious meta-theatricality is turned up so high that all authentic emotion boils away in an instant. Hence the question of the relative “happiness” of the ending never really arises — or rather, it arises only because one of the characters raises it. Moreover, very little of the actual plot is not directly or indirectly derived (and always with a wink and a nudge) from other well-known musicals: West Side Story comes to mind, as do Les Miserables and several of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s better-known works. Even Brecht’s Threepenny Opera contributes a character or two, and Kurt Weill’s score is audible, if somewhat garbled, in Hollmann’s. One has the impression that the play consists almost entirely of quotations from other musicals; and indeed, the show’s creators make little effort to conceal these larcenies. On the contrary, they assume we recognize them, and this is what gives the play that postmodern je ne sais quoi.

In other words, the play seeks to create — and appeal to (or, to put it bluntly, exploit) — a kind of “insider”-community consciousness among people who know and love the Broadway Musical, with all its conventions, its hackneyed melodrama and endlessly re-animated tropes. Without this meta-theatrical consciousness, the play is as devoid of charm as it is of content. It’s just not that interesting to watch people pretending to have to pee really badly.

Luckily, most of the audience at UNCA’s Belk Theatre seemed to “get” it, and in fact, the night I saw the show, they forgave the under-rehearsed dance numbers, the capricious lighting and the mishandled entrances and exits, and gave the cast a standing ovation. Nevertheless, I couldn’t shake the impression that some of the actors were scarcely aware that they were performing in front of an audience at all. (I noticed several of them slouching in their tableaux, literally resting on their haunches, and one or two even mouthing speeches or songs that belonged to someone else.) For some others, their awareness of the audience seemed so palpable, and the desire to please so desperate, that they were hard to watch.

But then there is Cody Magouirk. A senior theatre major who appeared memorably as “Caliban” in last year’s The Tempest Project, this young man almost succeeds in making it all okay. It would be easy to enumerate his many strengths as a performer — his physical precision and expressiveness would certainly be at the top of such a list –– but I’d like to focus on one quality I find rare indeed in young actors: the guy knows how to stay in the scene. In this, he is not alone in the cast, but he’s by far the most consistent. When Magouirk is on stage, though his performance as “Bobby Strong” (the romantic lead) is far from flawless, we know we’re in good hands: the energy picks up, the scene starts to move, the other actors come alive, things happen, we can hear what’s being said and sung. By the same token, no sooner has he made his exit than the tension starts to sag again. The latter half of Act II suffers in this respect, and it passes that suffering on.

Magouirk’s performance is funny, too, precisely because he refrains from the mugging that wreaks havoc on most of the other performances. He knows, perhaps intuitively, what most of the other performers apparently do not: that even in the hyper-stylized and artificial world of the Broadway Musical, someone trying to be funny is less amusing than someone trying to be serious and failing. Magouirk embodies his absurd, one-dimensional character with complete conviction. He plays it straight, as the play requires, and he responds with a lively spontaneity to what the other actors give him. I also liked Carly Crawford as “Little Sally” (How does such a loud voice come from such a small person?), and Skyler Goff as “Caldwell B. Cladwell” and Bridget Paterson as “Hope Cladwell” both have strong scenes. No one is seriously miscast. The costumes are well-conceived and executed, and on the whole, the singing in the show is quite impressive. The band (under Musical Director Ruth Seiber Johnson), manages admirably, despite the predictable and cliché-riddled score. I found at least something to admire in almost every scene.

I realize of course that I’m holding these students — and their teachers — to what is really a rather high professional standard. Perhaps that’s unfair. After all, a standing ovation has got to mean something, a testimony to the audience having been entertained. Shouldn’t that be enough? Besides, who’s the outsider here? I have no detailed knowledge of the specific training these students are getting, and hence can only speculate as to the pedagogical intentions behind this production. But I do know that this program has been an important part of the theatre community here in Asheville for many years now, as well as the incubator of many of our currently active theatre artists — professional and amateur alike. I would like to imagine that, were I an ambitious theatre student there, the perspective of someone outside my immediate school environment would be salutary, if for no other reason than this: after graduation, there’ll be nothing more between me and the audience but my hard-won skills and self-discipline, my intelligence and the depth of my commitment to the art of theatre. If I haven’t built up the courage necessary to stay in the scene with friends, how will I find it with people I don’t know, and in front of strangers?

Urinetown, The Musical, playing at UNCA’s Belk Theatre, through Sunday, April 26, evenings at 8 p.m., matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets: $10/$12/$15. Music: Mark Hollmann. Lyrics: Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis. Book: Greg Kotis. Director: Rob Bowen. Musical Director: Ruth Seiber Johnson. Choreography: Cherie Holmes.


APAR said...

A couple of responses to the MX website, from "mondy" and "rdean" respectively

"It is a relief to read a review that not only recognizes effort but also offers informed critical insight."

"It is also a relief to read a review concerned with capturing the nuanced relationship of so many elements… JC is serious about his main critical point, and provides much interesting and informative information about the show. More importantly he may be the only critic I’ve read in Asheville who seems uninterested in passing subjective judgment (good or bad) as though it was fact, and he seems to have attended the show without a preconception of how it “should” have been done. He doesn’t pretend to be an “authority” but an individual with a real point of view, open to what he can perceive. In short, he writes to educate and convince, not to show off. Great writing. This is the kind of writing that would help build serious audiences for theatre in Asheville."

Ryan said...

I agree that the format of this review is indeed a form of relief. I dig what seems to be an attempt to shake up the typical asheville theatre review and I want the people at the mountain express to know it is appreciated.

That said, me and John saw the show the same night and yet I think I saw the play in Bizzaro land. Interestingly enough I think we were in different sections of an arena audience so we could open this up to a grand debate about the effects of perspective on arena theatre, but let's not.

What's that? I want to be able to not only get the format of review I want but also get to chime in when I don't agree? WHERE WILL IT ALL END?!

Well, I'll try to keep this as brief as I can (famous last words). Applauding Bobby Strong as the savior of this production's tone and quality seems a questionable move to me. I'll admit he did a fine job and that it was the best I've seen the actor in question (although I'm sure my scope of his total work is far from complete). I don't see him as a shining comet of scene stealing but rather as a bright star among many in ensemble. I thought Officer Lockstock, Little Sally, and especially Mr. Cladwell did great things with their scenes and characters alongside Bobby Strong. Really, I thought the entire ensemble made for a happy time.

I saw a cast that was having a bit of a struggle with projection in arena on the third night (i think?) of production and also having a bit of a problem with resting in tableau (a task most of the leads were spared for the majority).

As far as mugging goes I've decided to hypothesize that every time Mr. Magourik mugged he did so specifically at me while masking his face from you...OK, not really. And I want to make it clear that I have no problem with Cody, but it is worthy of comment to have an actor elevated above every other member of a cast for reasons I didn't see. He was good. He was not 'punch every other cast member in the face for bothering to clock in that day' good.

More importantly, however, is that the mugging didn't bother me so much. I honestly think there's as much mugging in the production I saw as their was in the broadway recording I have at home (for those wondering...yes, you can hear mugging). The only major differences I noted were more musical compromises for vocal ranges and tempo then any major tonal shift. I did not see or witness any record of its debut at the fringe festival so can not speak to its tone there. I just don't think it pooed on the production.

A note on the audience 'getting it'. This one isn't for John's review so much, but some time after the show someone tried to inform me the show had an underlying environmental message. I just wanted to take a moment to say here that I think we as theatre people think the audience needs the IHOP picture menu format of a play to understand what we're saying. They bought tickets to the theatre, not a UFC match. Let's trust them. (apologies to the large demographic of UFC loving academics in the world)

Other than that, I liked the choreography for how it conformed to the space (the tap section and office scenes owned), thought the lighting was a constant of awesomeness, found the set to be perfect, and just wanted that on record somewhere.

I do appreciate John's bravery in not conforming his opinion to a standing ovation, but wanted some part of that standing o to be heard.

And yes, I think it's perfectly ok to review an educational endeavor. Mostly because every show I've ever seen or worked on has been an educational endeavor.

Jason Williams said...

I thought it was a thoroughly entertaining production. I came away from it thinking, "Man that's a production I'd like to be a part of, because it looked so fun." Did it challenge me? No? Did it stay with me? Not really. It's a fluff piece, a bit of escapism, but as long as they put on a quality show, I think it's alright, and I think they did that. I agree with John that some of the dance pieces could have used a little more polishing, and there were a few cast members who really stood out, but on Saturday when I saw it the entire ensemble had good focus and energy. I also thought some of the comic bits lacked refinement, the pacing of the non-musical scenes could have been picked up, and there were some diction and volume problems, but overall I thought it was very well done show. The set design was ambitious and impressive, the lighting design enhanced the show, (although I wish the color scrollers didn't obviously change so much)and scene changes were quick and unobtrusive. I also wish that the band could have been a more present part of the show, but it would have been hard to incorporate them into the stage picture.

Ron Bashford said...

I remember seeing the original; I had been invited to the opening. It had been scheduled to open on September 13, 2001, and was postponed by about week for obvious reasons. The mood of the audience was somber at the start, but it proved to be escapism in the best sense of the word: we needed it! We "got" the environmental part, but no one at that time could take that seriously. Sounds like the UNCA production was really fun; I'm sorry I had to miss it.

Carly said...

I just want to put it out there that as a cast member of Urinetown, I feel like there was a much larger presence of the greater Asheville theatre community in the audience for this show than most others at UNCA. I am not sure what caused this influx of theatre-person audience. Perhaps it is because there seemed to be a high proportion of cast and crew that are indeed involved in Asheville theatre outside of UNCA, and they got their friends to come. Perhaps it was interest in the show itself. Maybe (and probably most likely) it was a bit of both. Regardless of the cause, I just wanted to put a big thank you out there in the public forum. I know I really appreciate feeling like the community is supporting me in my performance and my educational endeavors.

I am also thrilled to see people speaking constructively about the show. It's really nice to see opinions of people outside our own department.

So thanks, Asheville theatre community, for coming out to see Urinetown. Don't let this be the last time you sit in seats at Carol Belk Theatre.

- Carly Crawford ("Little Sally")

Ron Bashford said...

Hey Carly,

I know a bunch of Warren Wilson students went to see Urinetown, I think because of the show, but also some of them have been going to everything you guys do. Come on over to WWC, too!

ash said...

Hi there,

Yes, the Mountain Xpress IS launching a new effort to increase our theater reviewing. See http://www.mountainx.com/theatre.

At the Mountain Xpress, we encourage collaboration with the community and citizen journalists. Recent examples include our use of Twitter to team up with the community to report news, and the Mountain Xpress Community Photo Gallery through flickr.

But the Mountain Xpress takes issue with this blog in terms of copying and pasting entire reviews without a url link back to our site. We ask that you start this practice.

We also ask that you refrain from copying and pasting comments from our site onto this site.

We appreciate your interest in Mountain Xpress content, and we're willing to collaborate. But we ask that you recognize and indicate that you're re-publishing copyrighted, original material from the Mountain Xpress web site.


Jason Sandford
Mountain Xpress

Anonymous said...

Does MX acknowledge that this blog has been doing for two years what MX is just getting around to now?

Audience Member said...

Mountain Express is doing something different from what this blog is doing. It has established several presumably qualified, experienced writers as their on-going critics/reviewers for theatre, is paying them for their work and is making their views available to a general audience, not just a few "theatre people" talking back and forth among themselves. They've committed resources to the project, and presumably will follow through regularly, rather than intermittently. It could create broader attention to theatre among its readers and perhaps generate some intelligent, curious audiences in Asheville. At least one of the reviewers appears to have a broad background as a theatre practitioner and writer and may have things to say from which local practitioners, mostly young, mostly limited to Asheville in their experience of theatre, could learn. It's an interesting experiment. Will it succeed?