Arts and Entertainment Editor
What is Urinetown? That is the question the fantastic 1 hour and 55 minute production of Urinetown: The Musical, performed by the Sewanee Theater & Dance Department, set out to answer for audiences, over the past two weekends. The show begins with the narration led by Officer Lockstock (played by Ben Davis (C’24)) and Little Sally (Kalia Thompson (C’23)). Davis’s first lines already break the fourth wall, as he addresses the audience directly: “Well, hello there.” He welcomes you to “Urinetown: The Musical,” not to be confused with Urinetown the place, which is not to be revealed until later in the production, “somewhere in Act II.” Little Sally is a young girl who, in addition to Officer Lockstock, provides some exposition and some well-needed comic relief.
The plot to Urinetown: The Musical is simple. There has been a drought for twenty years, and Urine Good Company (UGC) has monopolized the town in order to “keep pee off the streets and the water in the ground.” They do this by charging people to pee. Ms. Pennywise (Gray Shiverick (C’23)) runs Public Amenity No. 9, the cheapest public toilet, in the poorest part of town. In her introductory song, “It’s a Privilege to Pee,” she reveals that she is a simple business woman doing what she has to do in order to survive this drought. Her assistant is Bobby Strong (Nick Govindan (C’23), the hero of our tale. Bobby Strong is a defiant boy who wants to protect the people he loves from the harsh regulations imposed by the rich. Bobby falls in love with Hope Cladwell (Arden-Grace Gipson (C’26), the innocent daughter of the tyrant CEO of UGC, Caldwell B. Cladwell (Chris Talbot (C’23). Bobby begins a revolution, and after his death, Hope continues it.
Throughout the play, the characters debate what exactly “Urinetown” is. Little Sally describes it as a “metaphysical place” and during the revolution Bobby claims, “Urinetown’s a lie, a means to keep the poor in check till the day they die.” The Act II opener, “What is Urinetown?” involves all the characters with their own theories, including the hook of the song, “For Urinetown is your town if you’re hopeless, down, and out.”
The fourth wall breaks when Little Sally and Officer Lockstock provide some information to the audience, allowing them to pick up on the clues as they come. In the middle of Act I, Little Sally asks Officer Lockstock to tell her what Urinetown is, and he remarks that they can’t just blurt it out, it needs to happen in a “catharsis moment” and “somewhere in Act II” (which actually does happen, but we’ll get to that later) before literally blurting out, “I can’t just shout out, ‘There is no Urinetown, we just kill people!’”
The play also provides clues that become obvious after Officer Lockstock’s outburst, like during the cop song, “Cop Song,” where Officer Lockstock puts quotation marks around “exile.” The characters sent to Urinetown appear above the production wearing angel wings, and Officer Lockstock says, “they all scream in the end.”
The love story between Bobby and Hope provides some joy to this slightly depressing story, as the innocence of Hope meets Bobby’s hard earned cynicism and they teach each other things by listening to each other’s hearts (literally). And, as Officer Lockstock says, “He’s the hero of the story, she has to love him.”
Govindan’s deep, commanding, and powerful voice is the perfect voice for a revolution and blends perfectly with Gipson’s sweet, innocent, light voice, showing that for true change to be possible, you need the revolution and the hope for a new day.
After the revolution, Bobby tries to make a deal with Cladwell, and Cladwell tricks him and sends him to Urinetown. (Leading to our catharsis moment mentioned by Davis earlier) where Bobby exclaims, “Death is Urinetown?!” before being promptly thrown off a building. This leads to one of the sweetest songs in the entire production. While most of the songs are lighthearted and upbeat, or powerful and inspiring, “Tell Her I Love Her” is a simply sweet song where Little Sally recounts Bobby’s last words to the poor and to Hope. Thompson’s innocent and soft voice mixes so well with Govindan’s loving deeper voice as they sing.
The production sprinkles moments of humor into the serious times, like Bobby beginning the revolution by thrusting a plunger high into the sky. The production also provides a lighthearted feel to all of the struggles and dark moments of the play. There is the snappy, upbeat song “Snuff That Girl” where the poor literally debate murdering Hope. There is the revolution song, “We’re Not Sorry” in which the heroes of our tale go on a murder spree, accompanied by song and dance of course. As a conversation between Officer Lockstock and Little Sally illustrates: “This is not a happy musical.”, “But the music’s so happy!”
Speaking of not a happy musical, you’d think that after Hope takes over the revolution, they’d defeat the evil Caldwell B. Cladwell, take over the town, and live happily ever after, right? Well… While they do defeat Cladwell, and Hope takes over UGC (renaming it after Bobby), she ignores the warning signs of the water dropping, and eventually all the water runs out. So the musical ends with, except for a special few, all of the characters dead. A real Hamlet moment. The only characters to survive are Mr. McQueen (Grayson Davis (C’26)), one of Cladwell’s staff who escapes to Brazil, Officer Lockstock, and one could argue, Little Sally, for they are the narrators of our little story, and as Davis explains, “I’m also the narrator, so no one can touch me. Not if they want the show to end on time.”
Urinetown is a sarcastic, cheeky, production that pokes fun at so many things, including itself: the name of the musical, the subject matter of the musical, and above all- capitalism. The entire musical is a scathing, snarky commentary on climate change, the rich taking advantage of the poor, and whether it is important to think of tomorrow or today. The play shows both sides of this last argument. The UGC takes harsh advantage of the town, all for the promise that they will keep the water in the ground, (which they do) without thinking about the daily struggles of the poor. The revolutionists make a bold promise that no one should have to pay to pee, which sounds nice, but as the end of the play reveals, unsustainable. One of Officer Lockstock’s last lines is: “Don’t you think people want to be told their way of life is unsustainable?”
Despite the amount of death and struggle, and the harsh subject matter, the musical manages to be humorous and lighthearted, inspiring and moving, and so very enjoyable. If you missed this latest production, don’t miss Big Love in Angel Park, Sewanee’s outdoor Spring production in late April.
Surely the talent in Sewanee could have done better.
Les Miserables was a hit without the potty humor