About a year ago, I stared at Urinetown, the latest mega-hyped Broadway musical sensation, and yearned to set off a weapon of moderately mass destruction. The bombastic production at the cavernous Orange County Performing Arts Center felt like Rent all over again: brain-dead, insipid, and far too in love with its own cleverness and self-importance.
After seeing a vastly stripped-down and intimate production at the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse, I need to revise my opinion. Urinetown isn't a good musical: it's a phenomenal one. It comes close to being the Great American Musical because it's the first that seems to really get it. It gets the limitations and soaring possibilities of this most muddle-headed of mediums; it also gets that the rhetoric from the left and the right about the way Americans live is equally hypocritical and self-righteous. It gets that, based on our collective track record of embracing an unsustainable lifestyle, we're all fucked.
Urinetown is both goof and paean to the American musical and American music. Rodgers and Hammerstein corn-fed naiveté, Bob Fosse jazz palms, church hymnals, Southern gospel, mournful Irish ballads, beatnik jazz, syrupy odes, cheesy musical anthems, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof. Name your musical genre or cliché, and chances are Urinetown riffs on it.
But unlike most parodies, which seem content to exist as cleverly rendered pastiches of pop culture references, Urinetown's creators—Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman—manage to say something insightful and even meaningful. Amid the orchestrated chaos of the play's premise—a town where water usage is strictly regulated and it costs money to urinate—there's a trenchant, insightful commentary about how the culture of fear propagated by the tyranny of American justice has less to do with omniscient Big Brother than it does with individual choices.
The beauty of this production, frenetically directed by Greg Zerkle with ample assistance from Lisa LeMay's musical direction, Nicki Peek's exuberant choreography and a great ensemble, is that it gets Urinetown. The intimacy and immediacy of this production show that Urinetown isn't a satire of musical theater but of power and corruption. That truth shines far more brightly in this small Costa Mesa theater than it did in that leviathan of glass and steel a few miles to its north. The reason could be that Urinetown was birthed by Chicago storefront-theater types in a New York garage. When Broadway plunged its greedy hooks into the show, it may have amped up the wattage and spectacle, but at the cost of the play's soul. With this production, Urinetown smells like the soiled rose it apparently always was.
URINETOWN AT COSTA MESA CIVIC PLAYHOUSE, 661 HAMILTON ST., COSTA MESA, (949) 650-5269. FRI.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SUN., 2 P.M. THROUGH SEPT. 25. $15-$18.