By ALAN SMASON
The last time The NOLA Project elected to mount a musical rather than tackle a comedy or drama, the award-winning production company was just three years old. That they chose Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins on the eve of the historic 2008 election which would send Barack Obama to the White House was, no doubt, a certain and deliberate move on their parts.
Just as certain and deliberate is the company’s latest production of Urinetown, a joint production with the University of New Orleans Film and Theatre Department now playing at the Robert E. Nims Theatre. This dark, dystopian tale of a government so pervasive and powerful that it exerts controls over the body functions of its citizens was picked as especially appropriate in these nationally divisive and politically charged days since the presidential win by Donald Trump.
Urinetown is directed by the company’s artistic director, A. J. Allegra, who demonstrates an innate sense of being able to balance the comedic elements of this satirical work by composer Mark Hollman and book writer and lyricist Greg Kotis with its requisite musical and dance components.
As is to be expected with this highly regarded production company (they were just awarded a second grant for the second year in a row from the American Theatre Wing) the expert direction, technical expertise and talented cast all have contributed to make this one of its best shows. Of course, the title won’t win any awards, but the shocking value was designed intentionally to be off-putting.
That title was a major reason why the musical won Tony Awards in 2002 both for its innovative score as well as its unusual book, but failed to take home the Best Musical nod. The conceit of the book is that Officer Lockstock (Patrick Hunter), holds several conversations in his character with Little Sally (Natalie Boyd) as a means of advancing the plot as well as serving as the narrator of the work by breaking the fourth wall.
The concept of the musical was fleshed out musically by Hollman after Kotis related his experience of having to pay attendants in rest rooms while traveling through Europe on a budget. What would happen if a government imposed its will on its citizenry in exacting water restrictions needed after a long drought and demanded cash payments to use public facilities? Add to that an incestuous marriage with a shady corporate entity, UCG (for the punny Urine Good Company) and there is the basis for a revolution by the people to take back “the privilege to pee.”
This very strong cast is lead by Keith Claverie in the role of Bobby B. Strong, a public facility worker who becomes the galvanizing leader of the people, and Maggie Windler as Hope Cladwell, the idealistic daughter of the malevolent corporate and government leader Caldwell B. Cladwell (Alex Martinez Wallace). Claverie more than holds his own as a singer against the more classically trained Windler in “Follow Your Heart” and as he leads the cast in “Run, Freedom, Run!”
Claverie, who has won several Big Easy Awards for his past comedic roles, many of them with the company, was an obvious choice to cast as Bobby, a reluctant hero who has to rise above his station after his father breaks the rules and is carted off by the authorities to Urinetown. The threat of being sent to Urinetown by one of the thug officers like Lockstock or Barrett (Michael Sullivan) is held over the population’s head, but its true meaning – a euphemism for state-sponsored execution – is not known but to a few.
As the elder Cladwell, Wallace plays his role with obvious delight as he has his turns with cast members in “Mr. Cladwell” and “Don’t Be the Bunny,” oozing his way across the Eric Porter designed set like the villainous snake that he is.
Boyd’s role as the naive Little Sally is played with remarkable skill too. At the opening of the work, when Lockstock first suggests what musicals are all about, his explanation allows the company to move into the satirical “Too Much Exposition,” an obvious opportunity for self-ridicule of the theatrical form.
Leslie Claverie, Keith’s spouse in real life, and the Big Easy leading actress of the year for two years running, plays Penelope Pennywise, the woman charged with collecting the daily fee to pee. Her early first act number “It’s a Privilege to Pee” is a tour de force for her amazing voice.
Better known as a member of both Goat in the Road Productions and the Cripple Creek Theatre Company, Ian Hoch gets to work again with The NOLA Project following his leading role in their world premiere of Flood City last year. This time Hoch plays both Bobby’s father and later portrays an angry member of the band of dissatisfied citzens bent on vengeance, Hot Blades Harry.
Lucas Harms portrays corrupt Senator Fipp, a man who helps to see to it that UGC’s bottom line is supported through legislation he sees passed.
Lindsey Romig’s choreography is outstanding, especially in the many big numbers featuring the ensemble like “Run, Freedom, Run!” and the second act opener “What Is Urinetown?”
Pianist Ronald Joseph leads a quartet of talented musical performers, who help to bring Hollman’s music to life, while the performers on stage and located throughout the venue accentuate Kolis’s lyrics. Robert Camp also executes very impressive lighting designs that accentuate the grimy, dark and dismal settings of the hopeless and poor residents.
The nature of this production brings to mind a simple question. If The NOLA Project does so well with the occasional musical, why can’t they plan more than one every ten years?
The answer to that question should be obvious.
Urinetown continues at the Robert Nims Theatre at the University of New Orleans now through October 14 with performances nightly on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. An additional matinee performance has been added on Saturday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $30-$35 each and are available online here .