REVIEW: Oakland University’s ‘Urinetown’ Merges Merriment and Misery into One Mind-Blowing Musical Production

Urinetown is a musical I’ve heard a lot about over the years but never found the time to see — until now. Oakland University School of Music, Theatre and Dance get their 2019-20 season off to a phenomenal start with their production of this Tony Award-winning musical running now through Oct. 20 in the Varner Studio Theatre.

Have you ever thought about paying for the privilege to pee? Probably not, but this concept served as the inspiration for Urinetown. In the mid-90s, Greg Kotis (Lyrics and Librettist) found himself having to be selective about doing his business in Paris since he was short on cash and the public toilets weren’t free. This musical is many things, but if I had to succinctly summarize I would say Urinetown is a hybrid of hope, humor, and harsh reality.

Top: Officer Lockstock (Jacob Pacek) and Little Sally (Emily Fishman) look down on idealistic lovers Hope Cladwell (Alaina Whidby) and Bobby Strong (Sam Sommer) in Oakland University’s production of ‘Urinetown.’
Photo credit: JLBoone Photography

The music and lyrics by Mark Hollman are fun and catchy and Alissa Hetzner really gives each song a chance to shine under her musical direction. The vocal range needed to pull off these songs aren’t for the faint of heart and every actor holds their own. The lyrics are also dripping in satire and parody. You will easily recognize the homages to Broadway musical hits such as Les Misérables (“Look at the Sky”), West Side Story, and Fiddler on the Roof (“What is Urinetown?”). Using catchy lyrics to help talk about serious issues such as class and privilege may sound odd, but in the context of Urinetown, it works. As is the case with real life, not every story gets a happy ending. To help you visualize this fictional city, think of The Hunger Games. The poor are divided up into districts and are at the mercy of those who control the water supply, with no realistic hope of bettering their situation. In fact, the poor have no idea what Urinetown actually looks like. Neither does the audience for that matter. This notion of the haves and have nots is eerily similar to what the residents of Flint have been experiencing for the past five years. And this is precisely why plays like Urinetown are relevant and needed. There is something about being in a room and seeing a serious issue play out in a relatable way that has much more of an impact than hearing about said issue night after night on the news. Visiting Assistant Professor of Theatre, Don Brewer does a fantastic job of taking all this material and pulling the best performances possible from the actors. Because here’s the thing about the Varner Studio Theatre: it’s very close quarters. There really isn’t room to hide a mistake or misstep. I was scrutinizing everything closely and if there’s a flaw in this production, I certainly couldn’t find it.

Every performance in this production is polished to perfection and just as professional as any national touring show. Some of the standouts were Jacob Pacek as Officer Lockstock and Emily Fishman as Little Sally. In addition to playing the ‘pee enforcer,’ Pacek also serves as the musical’s narrator who has many separate conversations with Fishman’s character, the only child in the show. Fishman is always so fun to watch. In Urinetown, her character is similar to the role she played in last season’s Into the Woods — adorably plucky with great comedic wit and facial expressions, but this time with a super fun Shirley Temple-style hairdo. Sam Torres is a treat as Penelope Pennywise, or as I like to think of her, the Madame of the Commode. Throughout the play, she acts as a middle woman between the rich Urine Good Company (UGC) folks and the lowly inhabitants constantly forced to cross their legs. And when she sang “It’s A Privilege to Pee” in Act One, I thought she was going to blow the roof off. That’s how impressive her vocals are; as is her stage presence. Speaking of UGC, the man behind the people’s downtrodden state is the cad Caldwell B. Cladwell played with commanding authority by Mitchell J. Hardy (“Mr. Cladwell”). Cladwell embodies greed and selfishness, while his daughter Hope, played by the amazing Alaina Whidby, is the complete opposite. As her name suggests, Hope is filled to the brim with innocence (“Follow Your Heart”). Plus, her perkiness is off the charts. But it’s her pie-in-the-sky outlook that makes her the ideal romantic interest for Bobby Strong, played by Sam Sommer.

Come see theatre student Matthew Carlsen’s clever costume creations up close in Oakland University’s production of ‘Urinetown.’ Playing until Oct. 20 at Varner Studio Theatre.
Photo credit: Oakland University School of Music, Theatre and Dance Facebook page.

Bobby is one of the common folk and while it seems like he and Hope are from different worlds, they actually have a lot in common (think Maria and Tony from West Side Story). Sommer does an exceptional job playing Ms. Pennywise’s Assistant Custodian turned romantic lead/rebellion leader, but I have to mention how impressed I was with his dedication as he finished performing the song “Act One Finale” with a bloody nose! I’m not sure what happened, but he never broke character and he kept his energy up singing and dancing until the final note. Speaking of dancing, hats off to Choreographer Denise Caston for the impressive dance sequences. Finally, I must talk about the incredible costumes and wigs. Senior Matthew Carlsen deserves a standing ovation for his outstanding work on both. Seriously. I cannot fathom how much work must have gone into each character’s look. Every detail is flawless.

Urinetown offers a lot for the audience to think about, but it also delivers a lot of fun and laughter. If you’re on the fence about going, I’d encourage you to take a chance on this loveable and quirky musical. Because when you’re watching this show you’re not just watching university students, you’re watching the future of musical theatre. And from what I saw, we are in very good hands.

The performance runs around two hours with a 15-minute intermission.

Opening night was sold out and it’s my understanding that most of the remaining shows are as well. So, don’t wait too long to find out what happens in Urinetown.

Tickets for Urinetown are $22 general admission and $12 for students. They may be purchased online without service fees at ETix.com. They can also be purchased at the Varner Box Office on OU’s campus.

For more information on this and other Music, Theatre and Dance programs and performances, call (248) 370-2030 or visit Oakland.edu/smtd.

Urinetown Performance Schedule:

  • Friday, Oct. 11 at 8 p.m.
  • Saturday, Oct. 12 at 8 p.m.
  • Sunday, Oct. 13 at 2 p.m.
  • Wednesday, Oct. 16 at 8 p.m.
  • Thursday, Oct. 17 at 8 p.m.
  • Friday, Oct. 18 at 8 p.m.
  • Saturday, Oct. 19 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
  • Sunday, Oct. 20 at 2 p.m.
About Sarah Hovis

Word manipulator, arts appreciator, sports spectator, and world traveler, Sarah charts her own course as the owner of saliho creative. She uses her creative mind and engaging dialogue to fearlessly bring the written word to life in print and online… all while keeping a watchful eye out for the next literary adventure. You can reach her at sarah@rochestermedia.com.

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