Robert Tanitch reviews Urinetown at St James’s Theatre, London SW1.
Lavatory jokes have always been popular, but do you want to see a musical called Urinetown? The title for this award-winning musical by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis is clearly going to put a lot of people off-going to see it. The musical cleverly and amusingly acknowledges this immediately and makes a joke about it.
The show began on the New York fringe in 2001, transferred to Broadway and ran for 990 performances. It has been seen by over a million people. It has finally reached London in an energetic production by Jamie Lloyd and designed on two levels by Soutra Gilmour.
Do you really want to see a musical about how unsustainable life is? That’s another question the show jokily asks. A policeman (Jonathan Slinger) acts as narrator. Climate change has resulted in a terrible shortage of water. Nobody is allowed to have a private toilet in their home. All toilets are privatised and the owners charge an exorbitant price for their use.
The hero ( Richard Fleeshman) is an assistant at the poorest, filthiest urinal in town. He falls in love with the daughter (Rosanna Hyland) of the urinal corporation’s wicked President (Simon Paisley Day) and leads a rebellion, taking her hostage.
The script is a satire on corporate greed; and, deliberately contrary to all show-biz expectations, there is no happy ending, which is the final joke. However, this is not an agit-prop musical in the sense that The Beggar’s Opera and The Cradle Will Rock were; rather is it a send-up of an agit-prop musical and musicals per se and especially the rousing songs of Les Miserables. The high spot is the gospel number, Run Freedom, Run.