Book by Greg Kotis. Music and lyrics by Mark Hollmann. Dir. Tom Mullen. With Michael Buchanan, Tamara Spiewak, Christine Sherrill, Jon Frazier. Mercury Theatre.
If any other Chicago production of a Broadway musical arrived here looking identical to its Broadway progenitor, hurtful accusations—from lack of creativity at least, to plagiarism at worst—would surely fly. But it’s tough to make the case that the hysterical Urinetown, which was created by former storefront Chicagoans and originally appeared on Broadway with its ironic, bare-bones sensibility intact, should look like anything but the original model, even (or especially?) with a Chicago address. So even though this vastly entertaining, new, local version offers nothing Broadway’s didn’t, it hardly suffers from the fact that it’s a virtual replication.
The stark story of a draught-plagued, dystopian city forced to regulate its sewage system so stringently its citizens have to pay to use the facilities, Urinetown is the opposite of a good idea for a musical. Of course, the joke is that the show itself and everyone in it knows what a bad idea it is, and charges ahead anyway. With Hollmann’s hugely exuberant, Tony-winning score, it’s also a commentary on the odd convention of characters bursting into song. (Several vintage American musicals get spoofed, but a newly added Wicked wink had the crowd unironically wetting its pants.)
Under Michael Sobie’s commanding direction, the music is the strongest element in Mullen’s Urinetown. In fact, the famously knee-slapping humor now comes mainly from the songs and less from the action. Instead of casting highly eccentric performers and demanding they play it straight (the Broadway formula), Mullen utilizes some mainstream musical-theater types in the principal roles and asks them to affect a Daily Show–style deadpan, which doesn’t always work. But that’s our only quibble with this highly caffeinated production, which still features a dynamo ensemble. For examples, see wonderfully wily, steroidal tenor Buchanan as dreamy rebel leader Bobby Strong; screechy, pencil-necked Rob Lindley, who punctuates his managerial wet-noodle role with an exclamation point; and, best of all, Roni Geva as Little Sally, the conscientious street urchin who helps narrate the show. Her scrawny, wide-eyed take on the character is, like the musical performances, pitch-perfect.—Christopher Piatt