Urinetown: Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 3/13/10

24 03 2010

What is Urinetown?  Oh, just one of the most unexpectedly smart and enjoyable Broadway musicals of the early 2000s – and Santa Monica’s Morgan-Wixson Theatre offers a delightful production.  With music by Marc Hollman, book by Greg Kotis, and shared credit for lyrics, Urinetown is structurally a throwback to classic musical comedy – but with a wonderfully contemporary, satirical plot twist.  When a water shortage prompts Caldwell B. Cladwell’s Urine Good Company to start charging for the use of public toilets, Bobby Strong organizes the oppressed masses to protest – and Hope Cladwell has to follow her heart in choosing between her daddy’s corporate machine and her love for the leader of the revolution.

For full disclosure (per recent discussions on Rick Culbertson’s blog and Bitter Lemons), I have just composed a children’s musical for the Morgan-Wixson Theatre (Thank You, Mr. Falker).

So admittedly, I have a deeper investment in this theater than others in the LA area, and I look forward to working with them this upcoming season.  But this Urinetown review will highlight the ups and downs of this production, the positives and the drawbacks, despite my personal involvement.  It’s biased, to be sure – but what review isn’t?

From show to show, one of the Morgan-Wixson’s strengths is undoubtedly its music direction by Anne Gesling. In fact, Gesling’s work on The Secret Garden last spring is largely what prompted me to get involved with the theater.  It is rare to find such a strong, solid, and playful a capella choral section of “Run Freedom Run” as in this production of Urinetown; every cast member has a firm grasp of the harmonies and executes the fun gospel-inflected vocals and coordinated choreography to a T.

The difficulty, though, is bridging back into the accompaniment: canned music.  As a musical theater composer and pianist, canned music is one of my pet peeves.  I understand the budgetary need for it on occasion, but it draws me out of the liveness of the moment and creates all sorts of potential timing and balance difficulties. Having said this, my friend Jen didn’t even process the canned music and its effect on the production until I mentioned it at intermission.  It is certainly not a problem for everyone, just an aspect that I am particularly attuned to as a musician.  The cast does an outstanding job timing out their dialogue to preset underscoring, but balance issues occasionally arise, with the strong ensemble sometimes overpowering the music or a solo being dominated by the prerecorded track.

Nonetheless, vibrant direction and choreography by Valerie Rachelle and Keenon Hooks, respectively, lifts this production – even to the point of forgetting the canned music now and again. Against the recent trend towards “realism” in musical theater (can a musical ever be “realistic”?), actors in Urinetown are delightfully self-aware of their exaggerated musical comedy performances.  Offering a particularly strong and grounded performance is the beloved hero Bobby Strong; Hope Cladwell (Keaton Talmadge) channels Emma from FOX’s Glee in a sweet and endearing performance, although her singing is a bit weak in comparison to Talmadge.  I only wish Officer Lockstock’s (Justin Waggle) “special” relationship to fellow policeman Officer Barrel (James Paul Xavier) had been foregrounded and toyed with from the outset of the show; there is plenty of sexual innuendo to play up from the start!  With a large ensemble of talented singers and dancers, Hooks’ choreography shines, especially in intertextual (or interchoreographical?) references to Les Mis, Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story and other musical theater classics. Whimsical, hodge-podge costume designs by Ellen King further enhance the production.

Whether the title Urinetown amuses you or disturbs you, it should at least intrigue you – and hopefully motivate you to the Morgan-Wixson’s production.  Just as they advertise, “Urine for a good time.”

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14 06 2011
Morgan Wixson Theatre Blog Archive » Urinetown

[…] Hint: it’s about more than just toilets.Reviews in Bitter Lemons, Buzzine, Campus Circle, Compositions on Theater blog, Palisadian Post, Santa Monica Mirror, SMC Corsair, StageSceneLA.com and Tolucan Times […]

20 06 2011
MorganWixsonTheatre Blog Archive » Urinetown

[…] it’s about more than just toilets. Reviews in Bitter Lemons, Buzzine, Campus Circle, Compositions on Theater blog, Palisadian Post, Santa Monica Mirror, SMC Corsair, StageSceneLA.com and Tolucan […]

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