URINETOWN: Breathtaking Pennington Players Production

by Terry Stern

URINETOWN features, left to right, Kim LaSala Cupo as Hope Cladwell, Caleb Whipple as Bobby Strong, Gary Gilbert as Officer Lockstock and Salena Qureshi as Little Sally. The Tony Award-winning musical is presented by The Pennington Players at MCCC’s Kelsey Theatre Nov. 4-13. Tickets are available at www.kelseytheatre.net or by calling 609-570-3333.

First of all—go see this show. The only two weaknesses I found were opening-night glitches which will be fixed by the time you see it. Go see the show. You’ll see a better version of it than I did, and I’d buy a ticket to the very show I saw again if they didn’t fix a thing.

I put this praise up front so you will not be fooled when I tell you that I was not in a good mood when I sat down to see the show. There’d been an error with the tickets, so seating was delayed and when I needed the men’s room I found it was down a flight of stairs, not an easy task for me in a mobility scooter. So I was a tidbit prickly as the curtain rang up.

I was wearing my pique like a big, foam hand, except it wasn’t the index finger pointing up in the air. I was prepared to have a miserable time, and, in spite of myself, I could not. The first 8 bars of the opening production number, “URINETOWN”, grabbed me by the beard and locked my eyes on the stage.

“You’re going to enjoy this,” they said. “Resistance is futile.”

The  rest of the number washed my pissy mood away like a cleansing shower of acid rain on a smoggy, summer’s afternoon. Remember, it’s URINETOWN.  

It is a wickedly funny play taking swats at everything from Our Town to Les Mis with The Cradle Will Rock,  Caucasian Chalk Circle, West Side Story and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as pit stops along the way. It slaps at greed and the oppression which greed engenders. Then it bites  the social protests which end oppressions, or, as in the world of the play, replace one set of harsh problems with a set of harsher ones. It is unrelenting, and the twisted ending is a stab at the ponderous agitprop theatre of politics which takes itself so bloody seriously. If you’d never seen it before, it would be worth the $18 ticket price, even if the production were mediocre.

This production is not mediocre.

It is the anti-mediocrity. It is actually breathtaking at its heights. The acting in the show is about overplaying stereotypes, and every single member of this cast delivers the assignment with a zestful, joyous, nearly manic abandon which plays perfectly against the dark message of the show at its end. The singing blasts complacency out of the brain. The cast does not so much dance the choreography as become it. The stage pictures are painfully beautiful for so desperate a world as they inhabit    It is, as we are repeatedly told, not a happy musical. But it is a joyfully, even ecstatically, disconcerting one.

Bringing it on is Gary Gilbert as Officer Lockstock.  Beautifully mellow-voiced and crafted enough to overcome technical audio glitches with ease, he is a chokingly funny blend of the Our Town narrator, Mister Rogers and Dr. Doom built into a vicious, oddly comforting, totally amoral voice of ubiquity. He oozes disdain for ethics with unctuous charm and a big, toothsome smile.    

Kim Cupo as Hope Cladwell is perfectly innocent, bright-eyed and open-hearted, gushing how grand it is that big corporations can do so much good for the people by raising prices. She bursts with big-voiced pride atop the chorus singing out that the man who brought all this to the world was her Dad!  Fine voice and wonderful, wide-eyed energy bristling into her caricatures from beginning to end.    

Caleb Whipple as Bobby Strong is a hero’s hero. Innocent yet strong-hearted, his strong compulsion to fight injustice costs him his love. He does a fine turn from good, moral innocent into opportunistic rebel leader.  He sings heroically, does an actual back flip and falls off a building with dizzying comedic effect with a little help from some well-done lighting and sound effects. And he is perfectly paired with Ms. Cupo in the romantic ballad, “Follow Your Heart”. Soulful or inspirational, Whipple is a strong Strong.  

Frank Ferrara and Salena Qureshi have mention coming. Mr. Ferrara is a slapstick hoot as Barrel, Officer Lockstock’s man. His pole dance is alarmingly funny and his oops-moment when he burst out, “I love you” to Lockstock is a marvelously earnest adjunct to his believability as a thug.  Ms. Qureshi is a jewel as Little Sally. A big, bold little voice and impish spirit with comic timing to match. The program says Ms. Qureshi plans on a career in theatre. She’d better.  

The staging is fluid and exciting with fine use of levels thanks to director kYrus(sic) Keenan Westcott.  The lights were most pleasingly and effectively designed, thank-you Judi Parrish. The music was excellent, thank you band. The audio balances were nearly perfect, thank you audio designer Wayne Irons and stage manager John Boccanfuso. No part of the craft was short-changed in this production. It’s a championship team.  

Two more mentions to be made: first to the ensembles. There are two, competing groups within the story: the peeful poor, led by Bobby Strong, and the toadying employees of Urine Good Company, led by Company founder, Caldwell Cladwell.  Both of these ensembles made major impact on the quality of the production with individuals standing out when needed and the group acting as a single, astonishing character when called for. And the singing was stirringly strident and discordant in a breathless, glorious way. Thanks for that.  

Next is for Rachel Tovar, the choreographer. The choreography in this production, especially the way it was tailored to match and get the most from the talents of the players, was stand-out. It showed a grand array of invention and range: clearly a big step above standard community work. Thank you greatly for your contribution to this production.  

The origin of the word “satire” is the Latin satura, meaning “dish of mixed fruits.” That’s an elegant way to understand the Pennington Players’ production of Urinetown . It is an exquisitely, sometimes painfully tasty  bowl of mixed fruits which I now commend to you as a satisfying treat as nourishing as anything you’re likely to find on any stage at any time. The show, despite the title, should be tasted and enjoyed as soon as you can. This dish is put away for good on November 13.    

Music and lyrics by Mark Hollmann
Book and lyrics by Greg Kotis
Directed by Kyrus Keenan Westcott 
November 4-13, 2011 
Pennington Players
at the Kelsey Theatre
Mercer County Community College
1200 Old Trenton Rd.
West Windsor, N.J. 08550

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