Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Swarthmore’s spring musical, Urinetown, is odd. It’s a show that almost purposefully eludes description, choosing to be a highly original musical that mocks (while completely outstripping) a parade of classic musicals.
Urinetown takes place in a near-future dystopia where, after a grim period referred to as “The Stink Years”, access to water is severely limited. Because of the strict rationing, private bathrooms have been outlawed and replaced with “public amenities” owned by the private corporation Urine Good Company, owned by magnate Caldwell B. Cladwell (Jamie Gregora ‘16). After his elderly father (Darbus Oldham ‘17) is shipped off to the dreaded Urinetown for refusing to pay to use the public restroom, the charismatic Bobby Strong (Aaron Matis ‘16) decides to lead a revolution against their corporate overlords, kidnapping the beautiful Hope Cladwell (Catricia Morris ‘16) to use as a bargaining chip.
In short, Urinetown is a hard sell. It’s also an ambitiously large-scale choice for a Drama Board production, but director Abigail Henderson ‘14 handles the material quite capably. Unfortunately, due to its size and technical capabilities, Upper Tarble is a limiting performance space. There are few lights available to work with, and the small scale of the stage (and step-like area that makes up part of it) require negotiated blocking and choreography. The production crew has done well with a bare-bones set and on-stage band, though they render this Urinetown more of a staged concert than full-scale production. Luckily, the show’s ensemble is more than capable of filling in the blanks. Their musical performances are strong, and the cast has a cohesion that makes each chorus number burst with energy.
Catricia Morris ‘16 is pitch-perfect as bright-eyed hostage-turned-revolutionary Hope Cladwell. Morris has an incredible stage presence, delivering a sticky-sweet performance that glues the show together.
Marian Firke ‘14 and Aaron Matis ‘16 give equally strong performances. Firke portrays Penelope Pennywise, the authoritative proprietress of a public amenity on the wrong side of town. Flashing what can be described only as a lusty grimace, Firke belts her way through the show’s second number, “It’s a Privilege to Pee,” wonderfully. Her commitment throughout even her most absurd monologues – her nostalgic reminiscence for a love affair during the Stink Years in particular – is a joy to watch. Matis is given a more difficult task: to be the straight man amongst the parody. He rises to the challenge, delivering impassioned speeches to the huddled masses earnestly.
Like most parodies, Urinetown is most enjoyable when one is familiar with its myriad references. The show lambasts Les Miserables, Chicago, West Side Story, and many more. My personal favorite moment is the finger-snapping “Snuff That Girl,” an homage to West Side Story’s “Cool,” during which the revolutionaries turn against Hope. Hope is saved by Bobby, who reminds his followers that they’re fighting for freedom, not hatred. Naturally, the scene transitions into a rousing gospel number.
Thanks to the helpful narration from Officer Lockstock (Anita Castillo-Halvorssen ‘15), even those unfamiliar with musical theatre canon will be able to follow along. Of course, don’t go in expecting the story to end like those classics. As Officer Lockstock tells the plucky Little Sally (Tamsin True-Alcala ’15), “dreams only come true in happy musicals.” Urinetown may be funny, but it’s far from optimistic.
Although Upper Tarble limits Urinetown’s possibilities, the cast makes attending the show worthwhile. Much like Urinetown the town’s revolutionaries, they make do with what they have and create something deserving a standing – or sitting – ovation.
Photos by Martin Froger-Silva ’16/The Daily Gazette