“Urinetown — The Musical” is a show that’s based on an admittedly terrible idea, but one that’s cleverly, even beautifully, sustained. The play, at Fabrefaction Theatre Company through October 20, poses the question, what if water supplies were so scarce that people had to pay to pee? All bets are off, because the results are totally charming. “Urinetown” is one part “Simpsons” episode, one part classic musical and another part (wait for it) Brechtian allegory.
The 2001 satirical musical had its start at the New York Fringe Festival, then moved to off-Broadway, eventually arriving on Broadway, where it ran for three years and almost 1,000 performances, earning 10 Tony Award nominations. If you’d never seen the show, it would be hard to reconcile the concept — taken as it is from “the dismal science” of economics and waste — with this level of success. But it’s a show that both makes fun of musical conventions and employs them for all they’re worth. It’s a musical that smirks and winks at the audience, but never stops believing that this might turn out to be a good show.
It’s set in a sort of theatrical imaginary “everytown.” There’s been a 20-year drought, and water is such a precious resource that all private toilets are shut down, and people, even the poor, are forced to pay for the privilege of using public facilities. This set-up is masterminded by Caldwell B. Cladwell (Jeff McKerley), the evil president and owner of the Urine Good Company, and resisted by the young hero Bobby Strong (Nick Arapoglou), assistant custodian at the poorest urinal in town, who falls in love with Cladwell’s daughter Hope (Caroline Freedland) and ultimately leads a rebellion against the system.
The story is narrated by Officer Lockstock (Bert Hansard) and Little Sally (Christina Hoff), who seem meta-conscious of its problems, commenting on the “terrible title,” the awful concept and even the audience’s presumed desire to leave early. Along the way, we get micro-spoofs of everything from the “Thriller” video to other musicals such as “Les Miserables.”
Arapoglou and Freedland make a great hero and heroine: Both have lovely voices and seem to perfectly understand, and dive headfirst, into the musical’s unusual satirical tone. Kayce Grogan Wallace is a lot of fun as Penelope Pennywise, the no-nonsense, jaded warden at one of the urinals, who undergoes a profound transformation. Most members of the strong ensemble cast take on multiple roles, to amusing effect. Surprisingly, in the end, the show even manages to encompass some serious themes about ecological disaster, human nature, greed and capitalism.
I know there was a Broadway production, and I think there was a big touring version that came to the Fox Theatre, but everything is so nicely done at Fabrefaction that I didn’t find myself wondering what a particular effect might have looked like or any song might have sounded like in a bigger production. A live band plays offstage, since there is no orchestra pit. There’s an intimacy and knowingly homespun quality at Fabrefaction that perfectly suit the show. I wouldn’t have wanted to see it anyplace else.
“Urinetown” won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. If you’re totally put off by the title, you should probably think about trusting your instincts. But fans of “The Simpsons” and musical satires such as “The Little Shop of Horrors” will undoubtedly, um, want to go while they still can.