Is Urinetown flushed with success?
The satirical American musical receives its UK premiere at the St James Theatre, directed by Jamie Lloyd
Urinetown... is an ironic, subversive musical that is clever enough to have it both ways, have its cake and eat it, take the rise out of the genre and contribute a parody-like sophomoric advance at the same time... The only thing missing from the music and lyrics of Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis is anything like a melody or a truly great song, something of a fault in a musical, I admit, and for a show that is primarily satirical, it's not really all that funny... I first saw the show in New York over ten years... It had a downtown, improvisational air and naughtiness about it that has been transformed by Lloyd and his designer, Soutra Gilmour, into a slick, formulaic and virtually heartless spectacle, stunningly well performed on a split-level set. So while the end result is highly impressive, it does not invite any kind of warmth or delight in the audience...
... Jamie Lloyd's staging in the St James's Theatre is even better than the Broadway production I saw back in 2001 - it's sharp, smart, funny and disturbing... you could sense the rising enthusiasm of an audience really warming to this daring and original show... What makes this Brechtian fable special is the fact that the whole show is also a gleeful parody of other tune-and-toe shows... All this may sound clever-clever, but it actually works superbly. The pastiche is richly entertaining and Jamie Lloyd's production, with an ingenious split-level lavatorial design by Soutra Gilmour that you can almost smell, has great pace and punch and discovers all the dank humour of the piece... The show keeps springing surprises to the end, and rigorously eschews the sentimental happy ending the cunning story line seems to be promising. Indeed the off-putting title strikes me as the only serious misjudgement of this darkly entertaining and exceptionally sharp show.
...while it's not flawless, it has a welcome satirical bounce....What gives Urinetown its gaiety, however, is its parodic, self-referential tone... the constant mockery of the musical form tends to obscure the seriousness of the message... Jamie Lloyd's buoyant production, however, confirms the truth of another adage: that casting is nine-tenths of showbiz success. The mere presence of RSC star Jonathan Slinger as the buttonholing cop, looking like Richard III in a fascist mac, gives the proceedings an air of menace. Simon Paisley Day brings his formidable height and a towering rage to the role of the toilet tycoon. Jenna Russell, brandishing a cigarette as if it were a lethal weapon, is very funny as the ferocious guardian of the urinals. And Richard Fleeshman and Rosanna Hyland play the romantic leads with the right air of self-conscious absurdity... For me, the show could be more didactically alarmist still. But even to find a musical that airs the topic of ecological disaster and explores the metaphorical possibilities of the water closet comes as something of a relief.
Urinetown is an audaciously odd musical... under the guise of being a show about passing water, it actually serves up a vision of ecological disaster. The infatuation with splashy irreverence will leave some audience members cold. But there are clever songs by Mark Hollmann (with whimsical lyrics by him and Greg Kotis), and the satire at the expense of corporate greed feels sharp... Director Jamie Lloyd ensures that every element of this energetic piss-taking is executed with great skill... The standouts are Slinger, Simon Paisley Day as the villainous Cladwell, and Jenna Russell's fierce lavatory attendant Penelope Pennywise. While all the technical excellence cries out for a bigger stage, the writing strikes me as schizophrenic... Yet it's impossible to deny the originality of this crowd-pleaser, and if you like your musicals bold and a bit Brechtian then – to make the sort of obvious pun that the show itself savours – urine for a treat.
... This relentlessly overdone, underlit, shouty, puerile show is more on the level of an undergraduate revue. Its political slant is confused (the conclusions flood into the last five minutes in a mad jumble of comeuppances) and the visuals are sub-Batman. Urinetown may seek to satirise but it just takes the p***... One or two of the songs have some mojo, particularly a gospel-style number early in the second half called "Run, Freedom, Run"... Is there a good musical to be made about public lavatories? Probably not. But is there a good musical to be written about larcenous corporations and public unrest and brutalist regimes? You bet. Ironic young Americans are perhaps not the people to nail the truth. Ukrainian artists might have sharper insights.