Urinetown at the Old Town Playhouse this month.
Having seen the play myself several years ago in Toronto, I can guarantee its one of the funniest, most offbeat and thought-provoking musicals ever to hit the stage.
Director Phil Murphy agrees. I saw Urinetown in 2003 on Broadway and was just floored by it, he recalls. It was the funniest play Id ever seen -- the funniest musical. Its sort of anti theatre -- satire at its best. Its got everything, including a story of government corruption, corporate greed, mob rule and the poor conservancy of resources, all while satirizing Broadway musicals themselves.
So, whats the story behind Urinetown? Its the tale of a city plagued by a 20-year drought, where things have gotten so dry that theres a government-enforced ban on private toilets. The citizens are forced to use public restrooms, regulated by a single malevolent company that profits by charging admission for one of humanitys most basic needs.
And some of the folks onstage are tired of paying to pee. Out of the masses, a hero arises, who leads a revolution that involves plenty of comic songs and dance numbers that poke fun at Broadway hits such as Les Misérables, Evita, Annie and West Side Story. Theres even a boiling bunny scene, reminiscent of Fatal Attraction.
Urinetown is part of a trend in 21st century theatre that is almost anti-theatrical, says Murphy, who also serves as executive director of the Old Town Playhouse. Theres a sense of deconstructing what weve become used to as the typical conventions of theatre.
That includes a minimalist, deconstructed set created to get across the idea that youre in a gloomy, Gotham-style city in decline, while keeping one foot in the parallel world of the theater. Were cutting away the walls in the set so that you can see the blank wall of the stage, Murphy says. The idea is to create a post-modern world thats a police state, even though the characters are aware that theyre also participants in a play.
And, although Urinetown may be revolutionizing theatre for the 00s, its roots are in the agitprop theatre of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill who radicalized theatre in Germany in the 1930s. Their style of ironic, self-aware theatre with dark themes influenced generations of writers, including the likes of Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan.
Urinetowns cast includes a mix of old favorites and newcomers to the OTP stage, with Brett Nichols performing as Bobby Strong, Lars Kelto as Officer Lockstock, Alissa Korson as Hope, Keith Firstenberg as Cladwell, Jeff Buday as McQueen, Jamie Moyer as Little Sally and Nan Worthington as Penelope Pennywise, among others.
ONE OF THE BEST
It took three years from the time Urinetown was available to our being able to stage it this season, Murphy says. People will walk out of this play laughing themselves hoarse, but also with something to think about.
Murphy has directed or acted in more plays than he can remember since arriving in Traverse City in the late 70s.
I go back to 1977 with the Old Town Playhouse, he says. In the winter of 1978 I was in Fiddler on the Roof playing Perchik, and 17 years later I was onstage here as Tevye, so I went from playing a young man to the old guy in that time.
He has enjoyed a long and illustrious career in theatre, beginning with his days in Ann Arbor, where he received a Masters degree in theatre management at the University of Michigan. He managed U-Ms professional theatre program during his graduate studies and then took a job managing the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Stage Company before returning to Traverse City and his longstanding role as architect of the Old Town Playhouses success.
Since then, hes done everything in the theater from designing sets and handling the lighting to acting and directing in shows such as 1776, Wives of an American King, Assassins, Inherit the Wind, Sweet Charity, Mulan, and Beauty and the Beast, to name a few.
But Urinetown is clearly a plum for Murphy and he expects to do a plumbers job of making the play right, tight and outtasight.
Bonus: the playhouse is partnering with local organizations including the Grand Traverse Land Conservancy, the Watershed Center, SEEDS and Listening to the River to raise awareness of water conservation issues. Look for their input in the OTP program.
Also of note, thanks to a State grant, the playhouse will also be offering a pay-what-you-can preview performance on Thursday, Nov. 6 for those who cant afford the regular rates. Anybody is welcome to attend and pay whatever theyre able until we fill the house.
Urinetown runs Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 6-29 with two Sunday matinees at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at $20 online at www.oldtownplayhouse.com.