Arts & Culture

RLT gambles, wins with 'Urinetown'

The title is a hard sell: "Urinetown: the musical." Yuck. Even Raleigh's Broadway Series South rejected it, convinced that local audiences would turn their noses up at anything with the word "urine" in it.

So who would have thought that the Triangle's first regional company to gamble on this anarchic 2001 Broadway hit would be a 71-year-old community theater best known for conventional crowd-pleasers such as "The Secret Garden," PG comedies and the holiday musical "Cinderella"?

Raleigh Little Theatre is full of surprises lately. "Urinetown" follows a June production of "The Full Monty," the 2000 Broadway musical about a crew of laid-off Buffalo steelworkers who stage a strip show to make some quick cash. But where "Monty" was weak, with RLT unable to find enough strong male singers willing to drop their pants in public for free, "Urinetown" overflows with talent.

In this dark satire, a private company takes control of all toilets, charging residents an increasingly large per-use fee and carting off scofflaws without a trial. The script and score won Tony Awards, and RLT director Haskell Fitz-Simons has assembled a cast capable of doing it justice.

Toilet humor pervades "Urinetown." The script and lyrics are full of "pee" and everything that rhymes with it -- urine references only, though, if you catch my drift. But the steady flow of urine remarks didn't seem to bother the packed house of multigenerational fans at Sunday's matinee.

And "Urinetown" isn't about urine. It's about the perils of totalitarianism and excessive privatization, and the complex forces that enable a minority of greedy parasites to prevail over a malleable majority. It's about Stalin, the Nazis, the Dirty War. It's about any number of populations in today's world in which corruption and government-sanctioned murder are facts of life. And it's about the complexity of defeating such injustice.

If that doesn't sound like the stuff of musicals to you, it doesn't to Little Sally (Melissa Patterson), either. The plucky waif is part of the oppressed community in "Urinetown," but she also serves as an outside commentator, along with Officer Lockstock (Rob Jenkins), the narrator. Lockstock addresses the audience with exposition and wry asides that mock the conventions of musical theater. And yes, his sidekick is Officer Barrel.

"Urinetown" also has the requisite romance between its hero and heroine -- the rebel custodian Bobby Strong (Zack Morris) and the good-hearted Hope Cladwell (Katherine Anderson), whose father, Caldwell B. Cladwell (Scotty Cherryholmes), owns the water rationing firm Urine Good Company. But because playwright Greg Kotis flushed the Broadway rule book down the toilet, don't expect this perfect pair to prevail.

"Urinetown" can't succeed on satire alone; I can attest to this, having seen a dreadfully dull performance late in its Broadway run. This cast has great heart and charisma, and Fitz-Simons and choreographer Nancy Rich keep the pace lively and fun.

Catch this cautionary tale. Those who don't remember "The Stink Years" are doomed to repeat them.