Standing outside the Gryphon stage doors at Stagecraft’s production of Urinetown, I had the strange feeling I was at a highly anticipated rock concert. There was no need to tingle that familiar foyer bell to alert people when it was time to take our seats - the literal throng politely pushing its way through the doors must have been mildly intimidating for our night’s usher.
To breeze through the musical’s conceit - set in a perhaps not-too-distant dystopian future, a twenty year drought has put our bathroom habits center stage and now, it is a privilege to pee. In fact the only way to go is to pay to use one of the towns urinals owned by the malevolent Urine Good Company. That is until our show’s hero, Bobby Strong (Kenneth Gaffney), decides to take on the big bad corporation and lead the people to freedom. Complications ensue as he becomes romantically entangled with the perfectly pure daughter (Kira Josephson) of Urine Good Company’s CEO, Caldwell B. Cladwell (David Cox). Carried along by a paunchy score, this really is the stuff musicals are made of. And consciously so - Urinetown is above all a satire of the musical genre itself, with a dry ecological warning underpinning all the fun.
The thing that first hits you about this show is the design. It’s a thrill to walk into the Gryphon and find it totally unrecognisable. With a reconfigured seating block, Stagecraft play with the breadth of the stage in a way I had not previously encountered in this space. Upstage in the bowels of the space lurk the band, inconspicuous but never out of sight. Before them stretches out the set, designed by Anna Lowe; an impressive monolith of urban trash pulled together in an aesthetically awesome portrait of life at the bottom of the heap. Technically, it’s a spectacle and a treat, both for an audience to view and I would imagine for a performer to play upon. So much so that I was left a little wanting - whilst there were a select few moments the interactive potential of the set was realised, I wonder in what ways the dynamism of the stage pictures could have been pushed if the the set were explored a little more thoroughly.
Working in tandem with the set is the costume and lighting design. Much like the set, attention to detailing in the costume, designed by Polly Crone and Seraphina Tausilia, was spectacular. The grubby layering that characterised the lower-class set nailed that hodgepode, thrown-together look, which is often harder to realise than it is in theory. It’s a look which sits perfectly in line with the dismal tone of the set, and jars superbly with the intrusive pop-art vibe of the wealthier characters. The lighting design (Devon Heaphy) took similar measures to establish the bleakness of the world; however, I wondered if it erred perhaps too close to embracing literal darkness, as at times I struggled to make out performers faces with a comfortable level of clarity. That being said, risky moves were made with some of the more dramatic lighting states as we are plunged into seas of striking colour shifts, and these paid off in regards to aiding the overt and self-aware theatricality of the show as a whole.
In many ways, playing against the grimness of the design were our performers. With a cast of stock characters, there runs the risk of pushing the tropes to excess, and a line can be crossed where a consciously heightened performance bleeds into the extreme and unwatchable. The cast of Urinetown perform an array of familiar characters ranging from the ingenue, the earnest hero, and the Mufasa-esque ‘conscience’; to the Big Bad C.E.O (or Daddy Warbucks gone bad), the incompetent Mayor and the buffoon-like law enforcement duo. They perform these with an admirable level of control, allowing for a degree of fun and mockery without ever losing the note of sincerity that keeps the show from running away with it's own premise.
The entire cast delivered satisfyingly confident performances across the board, and it’s worth noting that when it comes to musical theatre, the stakes are fairly high. Nailing a triple-threat performance requires a certain degree of broad technical competence, and making it look easy is even trickier. I felt myself relaxing after the first full company number, realising I could trust the performers not only because they clearly had the talent to carry the show, but because the confidence with which they held the stage was telling me so. Whether this was thanks to a well-structured rehearsal process, the talent the cast brought with them, or a combination of the two, I was thankful I could sink into the hilarity of the lyrics as well as enjoy the genuine power and fullness of the score, which riffs off the broad range of sounds in the musical theatre genre and the band executed seamlessly (as directed by Sam Rorke and Jody McCartney).
What made Urinetown such a satisfying theatrical experience was that this was a production on which everyone involved clearly understood what they were trying to say. I detected a degree of trust in the text, and director Robert Ormsby masterfully handles the many elements of the production to best serve the satire. The dominance of the set aside, this is not really a flashy show (and not by the standards with which most would associate musical theatre). The dance numbers, choreographed by Mel Heaphy and Katty Lau, are less about wowing the audience with elaborate demonstrations of skill and keeps the focus on the pastiche in a way that elicits more laughs than awed gasps. Similarly, the very deliberate nods to either tropes of the genre (the chaotic and vocally huge act one finale) to the more specific references (the waving of a mop replacing Les Miserables infamous red flag), are given room to breathe and be enjoyed by the audience in full. We like it when we ‘get it’, and are encouraged to delight in the shared mockery - which it is worth noting always come from a place of passion rather than spite.
As seats for Urinetown started selling like hotcakes well before the show opened and the verdict was in, it appears that this is a show with an eager audience regardless of whether or not it lived up to the ticket sales. I’m pleased to report that the hype feels deserved. I would be surprised if it didn’t ride out a sell-out season.
Tickets for Urinetown are still available for:
Tues 20th Sept at 6.30pm
Weds 21st Sept at 6.30pm
Fri 23rd Sept at 7.30
Sat 24th Sept at 7.30
Booking can be made online via https://www.iticket.co.nz/events/2016/sep/urinetown-the-musical