Aptly for a populist musical about populism, Urinetown begins not on the stage but in the crowd. Officer Lockstock, played by Brandon O’Neill, walks down the aisle, wanding his flashlight over the audience. “Well, hello there. And welcome—to Urinetown! Not the place, of course. The musical.” That’s about as thin a meta-joke as possible (The fourth wall! Crazy!), but it and scads more like it—carried off with O’Neill’s booming charm—got a good laugh.
The musical, currently running at ACT Theatre in partnership with 5th Avenue Theatre, debuted in 2001 and a year later won three Tony Awards, including Best Book and Best Original Score. It’s inspired by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, and Weill’s jaunty gloom echoes in the music, but as satire Urinetown isn’t so much cynical as facile. There’s an evil, money-grubbing CEO who charges the proletariat exorbitant sums to use public toilets; some narrative gesticulation at a water shortage; and a ragged resistance movement that, when it finds a savior, collapses in its idealism. It’s easy to see this and beat the drum of current relevance: corporate greed, bureaucracy, the 99 percent. But the piece has little to say about the topics.
While the sound got a little squirrelly, like it was turned up for a larger theater, the music and performances were hard to resist. I found one sour-faced audience member scowling through the early numbers who by the end was literally clapping along. Admittedly, she was drinking wine, but she was not alone: The Thursday night audience that I saw the show with left largely elated, gushing: “It was so good.” “The songs’ll be stuck in my head all week.” The word incisive and its synonyms were, unsurprisingly, absent. But who comes to a musical for a sharp take on capitalism?
April 6–June 2, ACT Theatre, $36–$76