An overdose of laughter

- Leah Salterio () - December 20, 2003 - 12:00am
Just what kind of musical can one produce about making big business out of public toilets and people paying just to pee?

That was perhaps the initial reaction one has upon hearing about Urinetown. Yes, it’s a musical — and an unlikely one, at that. But can somebody laugh and be thrilled about it?

But Urinetown, which has been nominated for 10 Tony awards including best musical, is preceded by its distinguished reputation. It has become Broadway’s unexpected success since it premiered nearly two years ago. And last year, Urinetown romped off with three Tony awards for best director, best musical score and best book. For the Outer Critics Circle, Urinetown was also voted outstanding Broadway musical in 2002.

One foreign theater critic described Urinetown as "a neo-Brechtian absurdist melodrama about a city in the midst of a drought so devastating that a malevolent corporation has been able to take control of all the toilet facilities. Greed, corruption and betrayal run rampant and the public desperately seeks relief."

is being presented in Manila by Atlantis Productions, the same theater company which brought groundbreaking Broadway shows to local viewers like Rent, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Proof, Dreamgirls, Jesus Christ Superstar and Tick, Tick, Boom. At the helm of Urinetown — and all the previous productions of Atlantis – is Bobby Garcia, who is without equal in what he does.

The Broadway production is definitely larger, especially in terms of the props. But Atlantis Productions has maximized the RCBC stage to advantage, thus making the play more intimate. A live band behind all those props shares the stage with the performers who deliver live music.

as Bobby described it, is "a satire about a Gotham-like town that has no water. A big conglomerate that has taken over all the public bathrooms is running it. You have to pay them so you can pee. The musical revolves around the lives of poor people who can’t afford to pay for the use of the bathrooms."

I have cried, cringed and swooned to other musicals, but I’ve never laughed as hard as I did in Urinetown. Bobby succeeds in exploiting the laughs through the hilarious one-liners sparingly delivered by a competent cast. The most hilarious scenes are when Officer Lockstock, the musical’s narrator (played by the very versatile Dawn vocalist Jett Pangan), addresses the audience. He is the first to be seen onstage and often within the musical, he is seen talking or arguing to the little beggar girl Sally (Pheona Barranda). Their banter never fails to elicit laughter from the audience. Pheona plays her character to the hilt, complete with a little girl voice and innocent demeanor. Take note, Officer Lockstock’s cop-partner is named Barrel (Ritchie Nolasco).

Although the humor is very American, Urinetown addresses the pressing concerns of the day, like water shortage, which all Filipinos can relate to. And in a frivolous way, the musical signifies its own version of people power, when the residents go up in arms against corporate honcho Caldwell B. Cladwell (played by Michael de Mesa), runs the Urine Good Company and monopolizes the use of public toilets. He is backed by his sycophantic staff and some cops on his payroll.

From the title alone, expect the musical to spew toilet humor. But the side-splitting one-liners are ingeniously integrated with Mark Hollman’s music. The dialogue is lampooned even into the singing and dancing.

Interestingly, Urinetown writer Greg Kotis even managed to inject a peculiar romance between Hope Cladwell (played by Cathy Azanza) and Bobby Strong (Noel Rayos) into the plot. Amusingly, too, the musical spoofs other productions like Les Miserables, West Side Story and The Producers.

The Urinetown cast members assembled by Bobby Garcia are all seasoned theater performers who boast of their impressive stage credits and star quality performances. They manage to sustain the audience’s attention from start to finish, delivering the pun and subsequently getting the laughs.

Since Michael made his theater debut in Rent — and went on to doing other musicals and plays for Atlantis Productions like The Rocky Horror Show, Proof and Tick, Tick, Boom — he never failed to impress the audience with his performance. In Urinetown, Michael leaves no room for any disappointment. The consummate actor who excels in drama sings and dances in this new musical, although he plays a menacing villain. He brings his versatility to the fore anew and projects the strong stage presence, excellent vocal prowess and brilliant performance that he has been blessed with.

It was good to see Jinky Llamanzares again after her stints in international musicals like Miss Saigon and Tommy, both in Toronto. In Urinetown, Jinky is Penelope Pennywise, the tough gal who helps the Urinetown people in their uprising. She gives local audience a taste of that innate talent which brought her critical acclaim in foreign shores.

Noel Rayos gets to play the ideal romantic lead anew after he was paired with the likes of celebrity kids Karylle (Zsa Zsa Padilla’s daughter) and KC Concepcion (daughter of Sharon Cuneta) in Trumpets’ production of The Little Mermaid, and with Cris Villonco (daughter of Monique Villonco and granddaughter of Armida Siguion-Reyna) in Alikabok. He was also the lead in Romeo and Juliet. But that didn’t typecast the talented Noel to being only a romantic actor onstage. He got to sink his teeth in other challenges. In Urinetown, Noel displays his remarkable vocal range in pieces like Follow Your Heart (a duet with Cathy Azanza) and Look at the Sky.

Christmas may not be the perfect season to present a production like Urinetown. But the musical is not hinged on any season of the year and can get the laughs anytime. As for me, I can no longer enter a public toilet without thinking of Urinetown!

is on its last week at the RCBC Auditorium in Makati City, with shows on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

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