Devilishly subversive musical Urinetown makes a very welcome return to the Melbourne stage in this creative, timely, and high-spirited production.
While the water shortage angle of Urinetown may seem something of a practical joke in La Niña-soaked Melbourne this week, the fee hikes and corporate opportunism cut close to home in the current inflationary environment.
Winner of three 2002 Tony Awards, including Best Book (Greg Kotis) and Best Score (Mark Hillman and Kotis), Urinetown plays with musical theatre audience expectations, contrasting an infectiously merry score while pulling no punches on the impact of climate change and corporate corruption. Officer Lockstock and Little Sally share exposition (but not too much exposition) in meta style, calling out cliches and skewering tropes with many a knowing wink.
Director Mark Taylor and his creative team make the clever move of setting the show in the Australian outback, the floor painted a recognisable shade of parched ochre by set designer Sarah Tulloch.
Taylor’s work brings to mind the inventive style of Broadway director Alex Timbers, in which stage items are imaginatively repurposed to tell the story, and performance energy is kept frenetically high. This results in an arresting performance, which grabs the eager audience by the collar and does not let go. Although the physical humour occasionally threatens to interfere with the main action, the overall pace is well-judged. As an added bonus, musical theatre fans will appreciate Taylor’s cheeky nods to iconic musicals such as The Sound of Music, Wicked, Les Misérables.
Taylor is expertly supported by choreographer Sophie Loughran, who has crafted witty, vivacious choreography. The very high standard of dance by the ensemble playing The Poor is an absolute highlight of the show.
Musical director Ben Samuel and conductor Ashton Turner deliver a lively rendition of the deceptively challenging score. The band of nine musicians, including Turner on keys, sounds a little thin in David Barrell’s sound design, but, pleasingly, vocal amplification is handled with perfect clarity.
Framing the stage in sheets of clear plastic, Tulloch’s simple yet effective set design readily supports the deliberately rough and ready vibe of the production. Costume designer Harry Gill captures the sun-bleached Australian aesthetic for The Poor, contrasting The Rich with vivid colour. Also handling props, Gill provides a terrific touch for tycoon Cladwell, who sports a brass garden tap for a cane.
The lighting design of Aron Murray seems somewhat hampered by budget restrictions. While backlighting is used a little too often, Murray makes creative use of the resources available, particularly in lighting the plastic sheets.
The ensemble cast of 16 is well matched in energy and playing style, resulting in a richly realised performance.
Looking every bit the precocious ten-year-old, Chloe Halley has killer comic delivery as plucky moppet Little Sally. Dom Hennequin provides a unique characterisation of narrator Officer Lockstock, colouring the deadly officer’s humour with a laconic drawl.
Leading man Finn Alexander balances the sincere heroism and tongue in cheek romance of Bobby Strong with charismatic flair. Amy McMillan skilfully takes Hope Cladwell from innocent heroine to rampant revolutionary.
Quin Kelly brings a commanding presence to Cladwell, and sings with a very attractive baritone. Daniel R. Nixon is delightfully camp as Cladwell’s fey shadow Mr McQueen.
Maddison Coleman exhibits a terrific belt as Miss Pennywise. Ashlee Noble brings daffy humour to Officer Barrel. Mike Gardiner deftly contrasts the dual roles of ill-fated Old Man Strong and self-serving Senator Fipp.
The hard working ensemble work as a strong team, with each player embracing their featured moment to shine. Special mention to stellar dancer Adeline Hunter, who is a standout as Little Becky Two-Shoes.
The capacity opening night audience were quick to give Urinetown a full standing ovation. Many local musical theatre fans may not have seen Urinetown before and this season is the ideal first experience with the show.
Urinetown plays at Chapel off Chapel, Melbourne until 6 November 2022. For tickets, click here.