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The Arts
June 7-13, 2006

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Photograph by Dave Lepori
Urine Good Company: Robert Brewer and Tielle Baker star in San Jose Stage Company's production of 'Urinetown.'

You Gotta Go

San Jose Stage Company milks some thoughtful laughs from gross musical 'Urinetown'

By Marianne Messina

SINCE TOILETS are notorious guzzlers of household water, it makes perfect sense that a water shortage would force toilets to become public, privatized and costly, while peeing behind the bushes is a hanging offense. Well, maybe it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But according to officer Lockstock (Kevin Blackton), the narrator in San Jose Stage Company's Urinetown, it doesn't have to make sense, so long as it makes for entertaining musical theater. Called "public amenities," the pay-to-pee toilets cause lines of leg-squeezing paupers like Old Man Strong (Stephan Smith Collins) and beach-ball pregnant women (Katie Blodgett) to plead daily with custodians like Ms. Pennywise (Diana Torres Koss). Meanwhile, fees from the amenities are lining the corporate coffers (every shortage has its opportunists) of UGC—Urine Good Company.

San Jose Stage Company has tucked extra lighting into the crannies and thrown open its stage structure right to the back wall, which adds subterranean depth to the area behind and under the catwalks. This is just the place for a secret sewage hideout where rebels tie and taunt the kidnapped UGC heiress Hope Cladwell. (Hope is in fact clad very well—accented in matching accessories—by costume designer Michele Wynne).

The musical opens with officers Lockstock and Barrel (the barrel-shaped Martin Rojas-Dietrich) ushering a solemn prisoner up the spiral staircase at the left, across the catwalk and down the right staircase toward the mythical Urinetown. When he reaches a half-hidden alcove (another clever use of theater space), he (musical director Don Dally it turns out) takes up his baton and begins to direct the orchestra, a five-piece with a surprisingly full sound. Along with the orchestra, powerful vocal talents across the entire cast assert the production's grand intentions right from the opening ensemble number, "Urinetown."

Keite Davis has the perfect high-pitched voice and Shirley Temple legs to play co-narrator Little Sally. Clean, rangy and sonorous vocals from the love pair (Robert Brewer as Bobby Strong and Tielle Baker as Hope Cladwell) and from Koss as Penelope Pennywise ("It's a Privilege to Pee"), bring out the music's beauty even while the lyrics nauseate—a dissonance it's likely writers Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis gleefully intended. Yes, the world bumbles forward on casters of contradiction, and that's nowhere clearer than when the rabble shouts at Cladwell for having no long-term solutions and two minutes later sings, "What about today?"

Having the love duet sung on a rolling stepladder is brilliant. Ridiculous on the one hand, it cleverly sets up the idea of levels (the pinnacle of Hope and Bobby's connection is sung atop the landing), of a chase, of a power exchange, and at the same time it softens that whole campy business about listening to each other's hearts. With the height differential, Hope takes the lead—leaning softly into Brewer at heart height—without appearing wanton (as Pennywise does in a funny moment of melodrama that suggests her "questionable" past with Hope's father).

In another clever touch, officers Lockstock and Barrel use the song "Why Did I Listen to That Man?" to treat Bobby to a helping of police brutality as they cart him off to Urinetown. After they march him up over the catwalk and back down again Bobby "falls" from ground level, an intriguing choice that puts this abstract bit of stage work close to the audience.

Director Rick Singleton takes advantage of the talented cast to exploit and revel in the musical idioms—the hilarious revival number (drawing wild laughter on opening night), the great top-hat-and-tails number hammed up nicely by Paul Myrvold as daddy Caldwell Cladwell (choreography by Dottie Lester-White) and the surprise finale, a kind of klezmer traveling circus show complete with acrobats. It would be easy to rest this show purely on its camp, but San Jose Stage Company has rounded it out with a thoughtful dimension.

Urinetown, a San Jose Stage Company production, plays Wednesday-Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through June 25 at the Stage, 490 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets re $25-$50. (408.283.7142)

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