By Jennifer Mustoe and Caden Mustoe
I haven’t been to the Hale Center Theater Orem since we started Front Row Reviewers Utah a little over a year ago. Other reviewers vied for the precious tickets and/or I was in other projects. But when I saw HCTO was doing Urinetown, I grabbed the gig. And boy oh boy, am I ever glad I did!
The Hale folks gave us excellent seats, but there really isn’t a bad seat in the house. If you’re unfamiliar with the Hale, it is a theater in the round and it may be that the back far corners aren’t the best spots, but it’s a small, intimate venue. There are no nosebleed seats.
The show begins with Bobby Strong, the star of the show, mopping the stage. At the end of what seems like a long mopping scene, he turns the bucket over, revealing it has no and never had any water. I didn’t realize this, but this is a Metaphor. And discussing Metaphors, Themes, and certain Characters in the Show are a device in the play that is hilarious. That may not make sense. When you see the show, it will.
Officer Lockstock, played to perfection by Taylor Eliason, introduces the show and tells us later that he will never die (oops, did I just reveal too much?) because as the Narrator, without him the show can’t end. Eliason has real panache onstage, especially in his nuanced movements as he accentuates certain words, like “Urinetown:” (hands fan out) “The Musical.”
I will say now, the show is about: urinating and how you have to pay for the privilege; corporate greed; falling in love at first sight for two star-crossed lovers; a vicious bad guy and his two highly individualized minions; plus a group of extremely grubby, very talented ensemble.
The show’s urinating theme sounds creepier than it is, however, there is a whole number titled ,”It’s a Privilege to Pee.” So yes, the discussion of peeing does come up. But don’t let this keep you from attending the show. Here’s why.
Each musical number in Urinetown, somehow, miraculously, gets better and better. They start out great, more than great really, and progress to brilliant. Each song has a device or gimmick — a prop used, a movement employed that makes each number distinctive. In one of our favorites, “Cop Song,” the two cops, whose names are, yes, Lockstock and Barrel, are joined by the ensemble dressed as cops with Groucho Marx glasses on that partially cover their filthy faces. All the cops have flashlights. It becomes an amazing dance where lights are flashing everywhere, invigorating the entire audience. In “Follow Your Heart,” a brilliant Chase Ramsey as the hero Bobby Strong meets the high-pitched voice heroine Hope, played delightfully by Kelly Coombes Johnson, daughter of the villain. Within the course of the song, the two young people fall in love and have the funniest ‘make out’ scene I’ve ever seen. The number “Run, Freedom, Run” features Bobby leading the ensemble in a Southern Baptist type chorus, with hand movements that are funny to all, but particularly delighted my son Caden, who is next year’s Drum Major at Maple Mountain High School. Caden has determined that at some point he needs to try to find a way to implement Ramsey’s particular hand movements. They’re too good not to copy.
Finally, the song “Don’t Be the Bunny” has to be seen to be believed. How a group of people can make such use out of hand signals where two fingers are stuck out like bunny ears is remarkable and hilarious.
Every cast member is amazing, and by amazing I mean they can sing, they can dance, they can project, they can enunciate. They can put on one heck of a show! But I must highlight a few of the performers I haven’t already mentioned. Chris H. Brower plays the fiendish Caldwell B. Cladwell, who makes being stuck in a wheelchair seem a privilege and not a burden. I LOVED Brower. He made his character one to deliciously hate. His crony, the gum-cracking Mr. McQueen, played winningly last night by Chadwick Little (many of the roles are double cast), flips Cladwell back and forth – really fast! – as Cladwell makes little twiddly finger motions about where he wants to be pointed. Daniel Fenton Anderson as Senator Fipp was very funny. I hated him, too. (I was supposed to.) Marcie Jacobsen’s Penelope Pennywhistle is strangely sexy, devious, and likeable. (I say strange only because the whole show is strange!) She is a force to be reckoned with and electrifies the scenes she’s in.
Finally, my son’s favorite character is Little Sally, played by Amber Dodge. Little Sally is a co-narrator with Officer Lockstock and her scenes with Eliason are amazing. She is cute, funny, talented, a great dancer and singer, and entirely delightful. She alone is worth going to the show to see.
But everyone is awesome.
Often in a show, there seems to be a lag or a lack of continuity between the dance numbers and what you think might be the director’s vision of the show. This was not a problem in Urinetown because the brilliant Dave Tinney is director and choreographer. What this did was provide a seamless, tight, homogeneous performance. It looked “right.”
Costumes by Maryann Hill and hair and make-up by Janna Larsen were fabulous. I only hope they were as fun to design as it was for us to see. The set by Bobby Swenson was sparse (it’s not a big space) but detailed in its simplicity and worked for the show.
Finally, in any musical, no matter what else you have, if the music isn’t great, the show tanks. Music director Rob Moffatt showcases some amazing musical performances.
When I review shows, I look around the audience to see how it’s reacting. People at Urinetown were laughing and clapping and smiling the whole time. Little kids and adults alike all enjoyed the show.
If there was anything that could be considered imperfect, it’s just that with theater in the round, no matter where you sit you will miss something. In a few times in the show, people were laughing and I had that stupid, something-is-happening-but-I-don’t-know-what-it-is look on my face because something funny was being performed on other other side of the stage out of my view. It can’t be helped with a space like that.
My son said the only flaw he found was during the “Snuff That Girl,” the entire ensemble jumped rope and a few couldn’t keep up. This is so minor that I mention it because it’s, well, minor with a lower-case “m.”
Finally, I’d like to discuss the aspect of the show I find almost as compelling as the performance itself. It is the topic of using satire to teach life lessons. My son, a very bright 17-year-old, asked as we drove home, “Since the show doesn’t have a happy ending, what are we supposed to actually take from this? And how does laughing about the deaths in the show and the obvious corruption work? Is this really funny?” My answer was something like this. Satire is helpful in putting a rather serious subject in a format that makes it easier to handle. But because it’s satire, it’s clear that the topic is one that is unpleasant and can potentially make people so uncomfortable that they can’t or won’t discuss it. The messages in Urinetown are intense and unsettling. There are a few haves and many have nots, and those have nots have so little and are being so oppressed that they can’t even pee without paying. And there is a horrible fate for anyone who can’t afford to pay and breaks the law and pees on a tree or wall. Yes, in spite of all the laughter, there are some very heavy messages in this show and ones that I feel are worthy of exploration and discussion. For this reason, I think Urinetown is worthy of attending, not just because it is fun, entertaining and glorious (I keep saying that word, I know) but because it has a message that is pertinent to our time.
A few notes: parking is abundant and free. And the theater is on the cold side, so take a sweater. I would recommend this show for anyone, children included. It is a delightful, riotous spectacle, but can provide an important discussion for the ride home.
And though I rarely do this–I am going to do all I can to go see it again. It’s that good.
Hale Center Theater Orem
Phone – 801.226.8600
225 West 400 North, Orem UT, 84057
Evening Performances at 7:30 P.M.
Saturday Matinees at 3:00 P.M.
Weeknights – $18 “A seats” $16 “B seats”
Weekends – $20 “A seats” $18 “B seats”
*Children $4 less