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Musical review: Silly and self-aware in Urinetown

Pangdemonium's production of Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis' musical is an on-the-nose and hysterical satire.

Urinetown: The Musical

Thank goodness satire is not fake news, as the Media Literary Council presumed earlier this month, because Pangdemonium’s hysterically funny satire is the most fun this reviewer has had at the theatre in the past six months.

Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’ unlikely fringe hit sounds implausible on paper, but it is a musical that flushes your expectations down the toilet.

Its premise is that due to a water shortage, it is illegal to pee for free and the oppressed masses must pay ever more exorbitant prices to use public toilets or risk being exiled to the sinister Urinetown. After one pee fee hike too many, the poor rise up in revolt.

Pangdemonium likes to hammer home its productions with a relevant news peg and Urinetown does not have to strain hard on this point. Hours before the show’s gala opening, it was reported that the water level at Johor’s Linggiu reservoir, which supplies water to Singapore, has fallen to below 50 per cent.

The show, with pitch-perfect direction from Tracie Pang, changes little from the original, though there are some cursory local touches – toilet fee collection is dubbed Economical Relief Pricing (ERP) and much is made of the setting, the “most expensive city in the world”.

This city is represented by Eucien Chia’s neo-noirish urban set, lushly lit by James Tan. A rotating circle transforms part of the stage from a sewer entrance to the swanky offices of Urine Good Company (UGC), which controls the city’s water supply.

Among the things Urinetown satirises is the very genre it is part of. It gets its jagged subversiveness from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera and musical geeks will spot nods to Les Miserables, West Side Story and Chicago, among many others, enabled by the sheer delight of Andy Benjamin Cai’s high-octane choreography.

The ensemble delivers stellar work. There are some iffy accents, but these are minor quibbles, given how well they pull off numbers such as the manic Act I finale, masterfully supported by Jeffrey Yue’s sound design.

Sean Ghazi puts in a slick turn as UGC toilet tyrant Caldwell B. Cladwell, while the redoubtable Mina Kaye sings her heart out as his ingenue daughter Hope.

But by the second act, the show belongs to Benjamin Chow as toilet-custodian-turned-hero-of-the revolution Bobby Strong. His showstopping performance of the gospel number Run, Freedom, Run! further cements his reputation as one of the great triple threats in Singapore theatre today.

Urinetown succeeds in being both silly and self-aware, with more sight gags than you can toss a toilet roll at.

It is narrated to the audience by police officer Lockstock (Adrian Pang), while street waif Little Sally (Mae Elliessa) chips in with comments like, “I guess you don’t want to overload them with too much exposition”.

It is hard to steal a scene from Pang, especially when he hams it up as much as he does here, but Elliessa somehow succeeds with her wide-eyed poker face.

Urinetown takes the piss out of capitalism, totalitarianism, socialism and the very notion of creating art from any of the above.

“What kind of a musical is this?” shrieks Little Sally. “I don’t think too many people are going to come and see this musical.” That, at least, is fake news.

 

Urinetown is running till Oct 13, 8pm (Tuesdays to Fridays); 3 and 8pm (Saturdays); 3pm (Sundays). There is an additional 8pm show on Oct 13

Tickets from Sistic. Call 6348-5555 or go here.

 

Photo: Crispian Chan

A version of this article was originally published inĀ The Straits Times.