Theatre review: Urinetown, Hayes Theatre Co

A self-referential musical about a musical that explores all the classic tropes of the genre.

As the final lines of dialogue – ‘Hail Malthus’ – attest, Urinetown is about the apocalyptic devastation of the earth by humans and the role of rampant capitalism and greed in this annihilation. The musical pits love and the pure human heart against the destructive forces that are destroying the planet. It satirises capitalism, populism, environmental collapse, privatisation, bureaucracy, politics and musical theatre itself. It does all this is in a rollicking, no-holds barred, musical theatre production.

The original Broadway production, which premiered in 2001, was the winner of a multitude of awards, including three Tonys. This current incarnation, presented by Heart Strings Theatre Co in association with Hayes Theatre Co, is a hilarious and provocative adaptation.

The drama takes place in an unnamed town where water has become so scarce citizens have been forced to pay increasing amounts of money to use public toilets – there are no private ones allowed. This situation is being exploited by a private corporation, Urine Good Company, which has taken ownership of all public toilets, and is headed by the show’s central villain Mr Cladwell (cleverly played by Max Gambale).

A group of downtrodden, working-class residents stage a revolution against this oppression, led by the hero of the show, the sweet but vague Bobby Strong (Joel Horwood). Tension arises when Cladwell’s daughter, who is bursting with naïve idealism, falls in love with Billy, in a classic tale of forbidden love in the mode of West Side Story.

However, the show goes to great lengths from the beginning to set up that the place Urinetown and the musical Urinetown are two different things and that the musical Urinetown is what the show is about as much as the eponymous place. It foregrounds musical theatre’s tendency towards self-referentiality, pastiche and inauthenticity, and carries this to the extreme.

Musical theatre is often very aware of itself as musical theatre, of the fact it is breaking the fourth wall, and of the fact that the suspension of disbelief is continually interrupted by regular applause and, in this case, comments about the show and the genre from within the show itself. Thus the viewer is always aware they are watching a show as well as being engaged in a story. This happens in Urinetown through the exchanges between narrator and police officer, Lockstock, and the character of Little Sally, played by mother and daughter duo Karen Vickery and Natasha Vickery.

This dialogue is established early on and provides a continual commentary on the proceedings of the drama and on questions of what sort of musical this is, whether it is doing its job well, and what we should expect from it as a musical. The setting up of these different streams of a) the story itself, b) the enjoyment of the performances of singing and dancing, and c) the commentary on what sort of musical this is, provides a depth and richness of experience to the show that never loses its grasp on the audience.

Deanna Farnell. Photo: Phil Erbacher.

This enjoyment of this production is heightened and emphasised by highly stylised ensemble modes of acting and movement established with great clarity and consistency of vision by choreographer Cameron Mitchell and director Ylaria Rogers. This enables the actors to feed off each other’s energy to create the seamless stylised world of the show. This cast is fully embodied in the movement style, in the hyper-emphasised acting technique, while working as a pinpoint-coordinated ensemble at all times. This creates a mesmerising and comic effect that again serves to hold the audience in the experience. 

Urinetown is an example of the best kind of contemporary musical theatre, such as The Book of Mormon, where serious and brutal themes are dealt with in a light-hearted way, but which never lets go of the gravity of the issues. This is a clever comic technique whereby musical theatre, through the uplifting nature of the songs and the humour of the musical comedy, combined with the persistent darkness of the themes, provides a chiaroscuro, leading to a cathartic theatrical experience for the audience. As Little Sally observes, ‘What kind of a musical is this? Aren’t musicals supposed to be happy?’

Read: Exhibition review: Heat, Redcliffe Art Gallery

The main takeaway from this production is the pay-off of the constant commitment of all involved. After a disappointing cancelling in the midst of the pandemic in 2121, Urinetown can’t hold on any longer, is bursting out of its seams and ready to be enjoyed by audiences.

Presented by Heart Strings Theatre Company and Hayes Theatre
Hayes Theatre, Sydney
Music and Book: Mark Hollmann
Book and Lyrics: Greg Kotis

Director: Ylaria Rogers
Musical Director: Matthew Reid
Choreographer: Cameron Mitchell
Assistant Director: Megan Sampson
Production Supervisor: Derek Walker
Stage Manager: Amy Lawler
Assistant Stage Manager: Sebastian Winter
Costume Designer: Helen Wojtas
Lighting Designer: Jasmin Borsovszky
Set Designer Monique Langford 
Cast: Artemis Alfonzetti, Dani Caruso, Joe Dinn, Deanna Farnell, Max Gambale, Joel Horwood, Tom Kelly, Kira Leiva, Barbra Toparis, Petronella Van Tienen, Benoit Vari, Karen Vickery and Natasha Vickery.

Tickets: $52-$78
Urinetown will be performed until 5 February 2023

Sarah Liversidge is a journalist and writer from Melbourne with various obsessions including politics, social issues and art in all its forms. She is currently completing a journalism degree at RMIT university where she is an editor at the student run publication, The Swanston Gazette.