The University of Arizona is putting on a big, cynical musical in which the common people revolt against a pay-to-pee scheme. Meanwhile, an intrepid independent group is mounting a series of comic skits about the gay experience. Of course, it has plenty of dick jokes, but the show is much more than that in the end. So to speak.
First, the musical: It's the splendid Urinetown, which washed over the New York theater district early in this decade and is one of the few contemporary musicals that has both the wit and tunes to achieve long-lasting and widespread popularity. Urinetown mocks everything, including the conventions of musical theater itself. Two of the characters, a cop and a precocious little girl, take time out of the action to debate how much expository dialogue an audience can stand, and whether or not anybody would want to see a show (with a bad title) in which they're told that their way of life is unsustainable.
Urinetown employs the Brechtian practice of breaking down the wall between stage and audience, even while satirizing the people-power stage works of Brecht (and Les Miz, for that matter). Greg Kotis wrote the book, and Mark Hollman spun out the score (which owes much to Brecht collaborator Kurt Weill, as well as to John Kander, of Cabaret and Chicago fame). Both collaborated on the snide, self-aware lyrics.
It's a show tailor-made for Tucson: Because of a severe water shortage, society falls into chaos until a business oligarch named Caldwell B. Cladwell, by bribing every politician in sight, imposes a severe rationing scheme whereby private bathrooms are outlawed, and people must use the network of expensive pay toilets that Cladwell owns.
Cladwell's beautiful, peppy daughter, Hope, is just back from college, ready to learn the family business. By chance, she meets and falls for an idealistic restroom attendant named Bobby Strong, who winds up leading a rebellion against Cladwell's company.
Urinetown doesn't have a happy ending (something the two narrator characters complain about), but its climax and aftermath are hilariously vicious, and it's smart enough to throw in a line hailing Thomas Malthus, who asserted that only calamity could keep the world's population from swamping and destroying the planet.
Will water-guzzling Tucsonans heed this message? Whether they do or not, they should at least revel in its delivery by the UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre. Director/choreographer Richard T. Hanson, as his last act of defiance before retiring from the UA faculty, has wedged thumb against nose and lodged tongue in cheek to create a hilarious dystopia populated by some of the school's finest musical-theater students.
The innocent lovebirds, Bobby and Hope, are played by Kyle Harris and Stefanie Brown. Harris hasn't made a misstep in the major UA shows in which he's starred--How to Succeed in Business and Tommy--and Urinetown gives him his best leading-man role yet. He's tall, lithe, confident, endearing, charismatic and absolutely right for the part. As for Brown, she was a spectacular Cunégonde in Candide last fall, and now as Hope, she proves she can be just as effective in a less arch role--and she's still in superb voice.
The choral singing is outstanding, and most of the rest of the cast is spot-on, especially Richelle Meiss as Little Sally, Jacqueline Rez in a fierce early solo, and the always fine Christopher Violett as Caldwell B. Cladwell; in his musical numbers, he's an intentionally prissy villain, 1930s-style. Not everybody handles the pseudo-Depression-era dialect with equal ease, but most of the principals do, and Adam Dill's costumes make up for any stray deficiencies in delivery.
When I was invited to Homoneurotic II, an evening of original gay sketch comedy, I anticipated one of those earnest community shows in which the acting is broad and stiff. Well, in other respects, broad and stiff may appeal to Homoneurotic's creators, and yes, the scripts are shot with lascivious lines, but the production turns out not to be an awkward raunchfest at all. The writing and acting are quite good, and the sketches have more heart than balls.
Kenton Jones masterminded the show; he co-wrote it with Rob Zonfrelli and co-directed it with Joe Marshall. He also participates in 10 of the 17 skits. In his appearances with other companies, Jones has tended to push the comedy a bit over the top, indulging an urge to mug and flail his arms. Here, though, he's the most at ease I've ever seen him. He's low-key, natural and wonderfully honest in his delivery and his writing. Homoneurotic is Jones' true home.
OK, the evening starts off with a Punch and Judy--er, Rudy--puppet show, in which Punch's weapon of choice is a lavender dildo. Later, there's a sketch mocking the conventions of gay porn (a manly plumber, on his way out, says, "I was just about to snake your drain"), and a recurring obsession with Judy Garland. But the gay stereotypes here are objects of gentle fun, and more often than not, the stories involve a smart little twist, like when a gay son must face the fact that his mom has finally come out as a lesbian. There's a pervasive sweetness to much of the material and, occasionally, just a little sadness.
Perhaps best of all is a spoof of the 1960s stop-motion cartoon series Davey and Goliath, in which a boy and his talking dog work through little moral quandaries (the series was sponsored by the Lutheran church, and carried a nondenominational religious message). Here, young Davey realizes he's gay, but the reaction of his Bible-quoting parents isn't what you might expect. The actors perfectly mimic the jerky movements of the TV show, and like most of the other skits, this one is funny and heartfelt, and it doesn't go on any longer than the material will support.
The good cast, besides Jones, includes Jon T. Benda, Jason Brock, Justin Cole, Roxanne Harley, Brian Levario, Heather James-Thomas, Kaynin Richardson and Steve Wood. Together, they put on a show that is not all queer smuttiness; it's really about love, family and community--all the best Christian values.