Sunday, September 2, 2012

Underground's Urinetown [*]

Promotional artwork for Urinetown (Source: Underground Productions).
I didn’t know anything about Urinetown until last night, but from the moment where the front of house manager jumped on a seat and yodelled that we all “know the drill”, to the disembodied voice whispering “. . . piece of ass” at the start of the show, I suspected it was going to be a bit of a disaster. 

Urinetown is about a world in turmoil – in an eternal drought, water consumption is monitored and restricted by the tyrannical Urine Good Company who charges the public for the privilege to piss. Handsome boy Bobby Strong, who lost his father to the cruel arm of the law, falls head over heals in love with Hope Caldwell in an ill-fated romance among a revolution that hopes to inspire change and liberate the water rules, so everyone can pee where and whenever they want.

The musical itself is a perplexing and difficult choice since it really has no redeemable features. The premise is insipid and the book, score and lyrics are too inane for a snob like me - while there are a handful of reoccurring motifs (like, 3?) there is no complexity or anything memorable in the score. While the director and script claims that the production looks at the serious issues of the environment, globalisation and consumerism, it doesn't really come through or discuss any of the issues at great length. I don't think anyone was expecting a musical comedy to do such a thing, but if it was trying to it's difficult since there isn't much character development, and sequences and numbers just happen in front of your eyes while you watch in a daze.

There were three standout performers in the cast – unsurprisingly two of them include James Gauci and Rhiannon Marshall. Gauci plays the dashing Bobby with a great exuberance and vitality, easily breezing through the rock-esque score, and Marshall is the picture perfect and plucky heroine with an airy voice and lovely timbre. Their duet, ‘Follow Your Heart’, showcases true musicality and ability to perform. The third standout was a boy with light purple hair, who performs these outrageously inappropriate movements, stealing focus every time he was on stage. And the audience loved him for it - pointing him out and cheering every time he was there. One thing the whole cast is is enthusiastic, although by the ending of the second act, it’s apparent that they’ve all cottoned on about how ridiculous their situation is. Regardless, everyone performs with great élan, and it really pays off in a few musical numbers like ‘Run, Freedom, Run!’ and ‘Why Did I Listen to that Man?’ Pretty much anything involving the whole chorus was a glorious, chaotic mess and barrage of sound. Kieran Davey and Xanthe Jones aptly perform and make the best out of their two roles, an irritating duo who provide unnecessary narration while breaking the forth wall (the whole thing feels very patronising).

The Schonell in its festering glory didn’t help the situation - the cavernous space swallows up any performer or piece of set in it, and the minimalist approach of having a sparse set for the small indie-rock musical totally backfires since the space is about as intimate as a volcano. The set was practical but didn’t really stimulate much, although unfortunately it fell down about a third of the way through Act One. The wretched sound system causes the frequencies of microphones to cancel out sporadically, and (I think we heard one of the lighting operators fall down) it’s impossible for the lighting to evoke any additional emotion and it just comes off as a category I would describe as ‘musical lighting’ – however, there is a lot of comedic lighting cues, like when the cast dance in the dark, characters having to step across into their spotlight, and (my favourite) couples walking across the space in a blackout for apparently no reason.

For a scipt claiming to be a comedy, there are a lot of lines and gags that are emphasised and then re-occur as the script progresses. They’re pretty rancid, but there are a few genuinely funny moments where I laughed out loud – Little Sally retelling Bobby’s final message, Caldwell’s bizarre mannerisms and throwaway remarks, and ol’ purple hair kept us adequately engaged throughout the duration of the show.

It's a huge achievement for a student theatre company to produce a large scale musical with such a huge cast, but this performance of Urinetown just goes to show that even a solid and enthusiastic cast can’t save a truly unpleasant show. There were a lot of mess-ups on the technical side of things due to the shabby venue, but there’s nothing really special in the musical itself. The enthusiasm of the cast carries the show to some extent and there are a few stand-out performers, but it’s not a particularly enjoyable evening.

Tickets for Underground Production's Urinetown are $15-$20, and is showing at The Schonell Theatre at the University of Queensland until September 10th. Duration of 2 hours and 30 minutes including interval. Book by visiting Underground's website.

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