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Urine for a Treat: Urinetown at Generic Theater is Totally Great

By Jesse Scaccia
Norfolk, VA

This afternoon Jesse Scaccia and I had the pleasure of checking out Urinetown at Generic Theater. This is our conversation review.

Jesse: So, Miss Luma, what’d you think?

Alicia: Overall opinion? Amazing. So glad I went. Book, songs, director, cast, musicians, crew – all on point. From the first moment of walking in and seeing the set I realized that the amount of care obviously put into this production and it literally never disappointed from that moment on.

Jesse: Walking into the theater you entered the world of Urinetown. The yellow lights. A fantastic set meant to look something like a post-pee dystopia of corrugated cardboard or steel. All that was missing was the smell of… you know. I’ve seen my share of Off-Broadway productions, and rarely have I seen this much pride and care put into a set. Kudos to set designer Shane Stelly and light designer B Butterbaugh.

But let’s talk about the story, which runs deep with symbolism, has a fair amount of drama in its narrative arc for a comedic musical, and provides plenty of opportunity for laughs. Mind giving a quick synopsis of the plot for the people?

Alicia: Essentially, the plot centers around a global drought and a corporation that sets up pay-to-pee stalls, which they lobby the government to enforce. Private toilets are made illegal. Anyone who urinates in public because they are unable or unwilling to pay is dragged off to Urinetown, the land of punishment for offenders of these regulations. The corporation is rich. The people are oppressed and unhappy. There is a lot of knee-knocking, abdomen-holding ‘pee pee dancing’ and eventually, this fosters a revolution, wherein the people reclaim their right to pee freely… but at what cost?

They really could have picked any element of life which would be made difficult by sudden climate change or overpopulation to prove their point, but the writers chose pee and I am so glad that they did because, in addition to the comedic gold that it gave them to work with, it enabled them to make a point about the necessary evils of capitalism, conservation and revolution in a completely non-heavy handed fashion.

Jesse: I’m glad the director, the super talented Brendan Hoyle, chose this show. Because you’re right, it deals with some serious themes while being the funniest anything I’ve seen in a long time. (Funnier than the new Will Ferrel movie, for sure). For a funny show about pee I found myself drifting off at points thinking about the Occupy movement, the upcoming Presidential election, and what a revolution would look like in Norfolk. The story in Urinetown takes you places.

Let’s talk about the cast, which I found to be loaded with charm, personality, and enthusiast performers.

Alicia: You forgot TALENT, Jesse. Oh good Lord, I could go on at length about every member of the cast and where they shone. They all had great comedic timing and excellent voices, which is usually a problem/annoyance for me in locally produced musicals because a triple threat – an actor who can act, can sing and can be funny – is hard to find. But by far, I was completely blown away by John Mark Bowman’s performance as ‘Officer Lockstock’, who functions as an enforcer for the corporation, but also as the narrator for the production. He, along with Rachel Sullivan as ‘Little Sally’, took asides to break the ‘fourth wall’ in order to briefly explain scenarios or move the plot forward and those little asides contained some of the biggest laughs for me.

Bowman reminds me of a young Steve Martin in appearance, body language and delivery and had a booming, reaching, expressive voice that I was happy to hear used so frequently and well. In reading the program I discovered that he works as maintenance staff for Student Housing at Regent University, which is mind-blowing. That man should be on stage, always. All the time. It would not surprise me if he had a career trajectory that took him to Broadway or anywhere else that he wanted to go. But until then, he is an actor that I will be specifically seeking out to watch perform, until he moves on and then I will brag about seeing him ‘way back when’.

Jesse: Agreed. I feel similarly about Hoyle, “Director of Cultivate” for the Virginia Stage Company by day. He’s obviously an ambitious fella. He was instrumental in the development of the Hampton Roads Theatre League, and in recent years has directed The Drowsy Chaperone and The Importance of Being Earnest at the Little Theatre of Norfolk, and Closer at the Generic Theater. I feel remiss in not having seen any of those shows, but I’m certainly going to make an effort to see everything he puts on as long as Hampton Roads gets to keep him.

That ambition was evident in the details–the set, dancing, staging. I was particularly impressed with how fleshed out most of the individual characters were. That’s a neat trick with a cast this large.

Can we talk about the medium of theater, for a second? It’s one of those things where I rarely go to shows–and almost always at VSC–but, somewhat ironically, it’s also rare that I walk out of the theater not moved, stirred in some way.

Alicia: I am lazy about attendance because local theater requires more commitment upfront from it’s audience than does a film or a concert – you hear albums, see trailers, know actors. I think it is more akin to picking up a book than anything else; you only have the title, maybe a graphic and a short synopsis upon which to decide its interest to you, and so you are spending your money and your time on something that is a bit more of a gamble.

But what always moves me the most about theater is the real-time element of watching an artistic performance. It’s a bit of a sporting event – you’re rooting for them up there and you want to watch them succeed and yes, be entertained at the same time, but you’re engaged on a level that you aren’t with film or other static forms of art. I enjoy gambling on an intriguing concept and I adore the feeling of elation that comes from an excellently done production, especially one produced locally and most particularly, one done as amazingly well as this.

Flushed down to Norfolk straight from its subversive and award-winning run on Broadway.

Jesse: When we were walking out of the theater I said to you that it’s going to be hard to find something to critique. Do you have any notes for the production? Or any other elements or performances you’d like to mention?

A couple of my favorites were Shawna Lawhorn as Penelope Pennywise and AJ Friday’s performance as Officer Barrel. It was a small role but Friday, who is a Marine Corps Officer (!), did all he could with it.

Alicia: Shawna was fantastic, her little moue at some of the other character’s words or actions was spot-on. Also, Camille Robinson was tremendous in her role as Hope Cladwell. I completely lost it over her intentional over-singing on one of the last big inspirational numbers for the show, and overall she turned in a pleasantly spunky performance, which suited the role perfectly.

Again, I found nothing to complain about or that I felt should have been done differently (total shock if you know me at all) and so I am happy to just deliver a glowing review of a wonderful performance that I am still smiling over.

On a final note I will again compliment the set design and also, the blocking of the cast – the stage had three tiers, with most of the action of the corporation taking place on the top two, most of the action of the revolutionaries taking place on the bottom two and a lot of the pivotal moments happening on the middle stage. It lent a visual element that reinforced the theme of the production– that there are always two ends and a middle in every situation, social or political, and that tension keeps society moving. Just when one side or another thinks it has won, well, that’s where things come apart.

For more on the show here’s the website. It runs through September 23. Don’t mind the title: this show is appropriate for ages 7 and up.