Dec. 17, 2003

Theater: 'Urinetown'
Go before you go

With three theaters to choose from, you have to wonder whether Broadway in Chicago's decision to put the long-awaited "Urinetown" at the Shubert — the one with the most inadequate restrooms — was deliberate. Midway through the first act, the lady next to me succumbed to the power of suggestion and made a mad rush down the aisle. This is definitely not a show for anyone with a weak bladder.

You'd burst it laughing.

The unlikely but brilliant Broadway hit from erstwhile Neo-Futurists Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, conceives a dystopian alternate-universe 1930s, where severe drought, coupled with corporate greed, has led to a ban on private plumbing. The law requires everyone to pay to use the public "amenities" owned by the malevolent Urine Good Co. Violators risk sentence to the mysterious and menacing Urinetown, from which no one returns. Yet one stalwart youth, Bobby Strong (Charlie Pollock), launches a revolution over the the right to pee free.

As a musical, "Urinetown" is good — full of hummable, memorable melodies, terrific choreography and smart staging. As a satire, it's superb. With dead-on parodies of everything from "The Threepenny Opera" to "Les Miserables" to "Fiddler on the Roof," and a full measure of meta-jokes, the show is apt to be most appreciated by theater goers with a strong background in musical comedy ... especially those old enough to remember when pay toilets were ubiquitous across America. (If you ever crawled under a stall door for the lack of dime, you'll surely feel a poignant empathy.)

But anyone can admire this highly skilled cast. Playing broadly drawn, larger-than-life characters, mugging it to the hilt, the ensemble sparkles.

The marvelous moves of Tom Hewitt, as Officer Lockstock, narrator and chief meta-jokester, and the wicked pomposity of Ron Holgate as Caldwell B. Cladwell, the delightfully evil pee plutocrat, add up to a tremendous comic performance even before the rest of the cast wades in.

There are only a few more days of "Urinetown's" brief pit-stop in Chicago. Get in line.

— Leah A. Zeldes

"Urinetown" continues at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, through Dec. 21, at the Shubert Theatre, 22 W. Monroe St., Chicago. Tickets are $26 to $75. Call (312) 902-1400.