Get the Scotchgard: Circle Theatre’s side-splitting ‘Urinetown’ may challenge your bladder muscles

The cast of Circle Theatre’s “Urinetown.” (photo credit: Bob Knuth)

Have you ever had to pee so badly you could nearly taste it? I remember one time I was at an Ann Hampton Callaway concert at Mayne Stage up in Rogers Park. I drank a few beers at dinner before the show, and had one during the show, and midway through her set, I knew I was headed for trouble. You see, we sat in the front rows, with tables and chairs trapping us in. The only way to make my escape was by causing a major scene involving people standing up, moving chairs, etc. So, I crossed my legs and gritted my teeth. After her show concluded (with two encores), I high-tailed it outta there and peed for, like, five minutes.

This is nothing compared to what the poor people in the musical Urinetown are enduring. At an indeterminate time in the future, the world has experienced a 20 year drought, leading to severe water shortage. A greedy megacorporation, Urine Good Company (UGC), has monetized this crisis by taking control of all public restrooms and regulating all bodily voiding activities. In short: it’s a privilege to pee, as monomaniacal Miss Pennywise (Carolyn Brady Riley) belts out to a poor soul unable to pay the proper fee. Those who don’t comply get sent to “Urinetown” — a not-so-metaphysical space located at the base of the UGC building.

This ridiculous-yet-plausible, macabre-yet-hilarious setup is presented to us, with deadpanned delight, by our narrators: the omnipresent Officer Lockstock (Clay Sanderson, showing a lot of potential in the role but undermined by muffled diction and an unbalanced sound system) and the precocious and pragmatic Little Sally (the delightful Brooke Sherrod Jaeky). Sample self-aware dialogue between the comedic duo: “Nothing can kill a show like too much exposition, Little Sally.” To which Little Sally replies, “What about a bad title?”

This was my first time seeing this scrappy little musical, which grew from its fringe roots into an unexpected Broadway hit during the 2001-2002 season. Chicago had a short-lived professional production at the Mercury Theater in 2006, which I missed. So, with no prior frame of reference, I’ll just say I had a great time at Circle Theatre’s production, and the very talented cast looked like they were having just as much fun.

My only significant reservations were the leading performances: Creg Sclavi’s Bobby Strong works hard, but doesn’t radiate the requisite passion and charisma to spearhead a grass-roots revolution against the evil UGC. In addition, I could hardly hear him when he sang — partly the sound issues at Circle, but mostly his inability to project in general. As his love interest, Hope, Laura Savage is cute as a button and sings like a dream, but could amp up the energy and desperation as well. Right now, you never get the sense Savage is fully invested in what’s happening around her. She’s fine, but detached.

The rollicking ensemble owns this show, and act two, which features signficantly less of Bobby and Hope, explodes with pent-up energy like a bladder ready to burst (nice, right?) We finally see what the show could be with a more compelling central couple.

Despite this unevenness, director and choreographer Kevin Bellie keeps the energy high and the laughs a plenty. The vocally assured cast offers tight harmony to Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’ pastiche-heavy score, thanks to excellent music direction by Peter J. Storms. The band of four, housed in the bowels of Bob Knuth’s rusty pipe-filled set, offers solid support. And Jesus Perez’s steampunk-meets-1920s costumes add significantly to the quirky, off-kilter charm.

“Urinetown” plays through October 23 at Circle Theatre, 1010 Madison Street, Oak Park, Ill. More info here >

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