I once cautioned a friend of mine who was coming to see me perform in a production of Twelfth Night some years ago at Appalachian State University, to keep in mind that for college theatre productions, the show’s educational value was at least as important as its aesthetic — and certainly its commercial — value. The main purpose of such productions is to provide an educational experience (however defined) for the students; and depending on the program, this is not necessarily the same thing as putting on the strongest show possible in artistic terms.
I assume this is one reason why high school and college theatre departments so often do Broadway musicals. Apart from the variety of specific skills required of the performers, such productions demand a massive coordinated effort among actors, musicians, dancers, set and costume designers, lighting and sound designers, stage hands, etc., to say nothing of the staff of directors. The musical, one might say, is another great symbol of American Democracy. But on second thought, so is The Pequod.
In any event, I have little doubt that the students involved in the current production at UNCA (and there are lots of them), are learning a tremendous amount from this experience. They obviously love doing the show, and through much of it, their enthusiasm is enough to carry the audience along.
The play, Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’s scrappy hit, Urinetown, arose from the pungent July heat of the New York Fringe Festival in 1999 to become one of the most celebrated new musicals on Broadway in 2001. It ran continuously at the Henry Miller Theatre until June of 2004. Above all, critics praised it for its meta-theatrical wit (c.f. Officer Lockstock: “You’re too young to understand it right now, Little Sally, but nothing can kill a show like too much exposition”), and was seen to present a rather acerbic satire of American capitalism, populism, government bureaucracy and corporate greed.
It’s the satiric element, manifested in the play as irony, that is most interesting, since in its structure (the so-called “non-happy-ending” notwithstanding) the play is entirely conventional. Performing it thus presents certain challenges that go beyond those usually associated with musicals. The performers must not only sing, dance and (yes) act; they must also — and this is absolutely essential — refrain from playing the irony. Unfortunately, self-restraint is not something one expects many college actors (or actors at all, for that matter) to be good at without strong directing. The director has to help the actors see that the plot and dialogue are already doing the work of the satire. Their job, as performers, is to commit to their characters’ intentions in the scene, and play it straight.
This sounds simple enough in theory, but in practice is incredibly difficult — especially in an age (and age-group) where irony is, as it were, the default setting. Director Rob Bowen and his colleagues deserve praise for challenging their students to meet the demands of such a sophisticated play. And the result is, perhaps not surprisingly, mixed.
The play is set in a dystopian world where, in an effort to conserve water, private toilets have been banned, along with public urination, while a single mega-corporation (“Urine Good Company”) owns all public bathrooms—for the use of which a fee is charged. (According to legend, the conceit has its origins in writer Kotis’ experience traveling “on a budget” in France.) As a dramatic premise, this sounds serviceable enough. But Urinetown, despite its title, is in fact a rather antiseptic play. Its self-conscious meta-theatricality is turned up so high that all authentic emotion boils away in an instant. Hence the question of the relative “happiness” of the ending never really arises — or rather, it arises only because one of the characters raises it. Moreover, very little of the actual plot is not directly or indirectly derived (and always with a wink and a nudge) from other well-known musicals: West Side Story comes to mind, as do Les Miserables and several of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s better-known works. Even Brecht’s Threepenny Opera contributes a character or two, and Kurt Weill’s score is audible, if somewhat garbled, in Hollmann’s. One has the impression that the play consists almost entirely of quotations from other musicals; and indeed, the show’s creators make little effort to conceal these larcenies. On the contrary, they assume we recognize them, and this is what gives the play that postmodern je ne sais quoi.
In other words, the play seeks to create — and appeal to (or, to put it bluntly, exploit) — a kind of “insider”-community consciousness among people who know and love the Broadway Musical, with all its conventions, its hackneyed melodrama and endlessly re-animated tropes. Without this meta-theatrical consciousness, the play is as devoid of charm as it is of content. It’s just not that interesting to watch people pretending to have to pee really badly.
Luckily, most of the audience at UNCA’s Belk Theatre seemed to “get” it, and in fact, the night I saw the show, they forgave the under-rehearsed dance numbers, the capricious lighting and the mishandled entrances and exits, and gave the cast a standing ovation. Nevertheless, I couldn’t shake the impression that some of the actors were scarcely aware that they were performing in front of an audience at all. (I noticed several of them slouching in their tableaux, literally resting on their haunches, and one or two even mouthing speeches or songs that belonged to someone else.) For some others, their awareness of the audience seemed so palpable, and the desire to please so desperate, that they were hard to watch.
But then there is Cody Magouirk. A senior theatre major who appeared memorably as “Caliban” in last year’s The Tempest Project, this young man almost succeeds in making it all okay. It would be easy to enumerate his many strengths as a performer — his physical precision and expressiveness would certainly be at the top of such a list –– but I’d like to focus on one quality I find rare indeed in young actors: the guy knows how to stay in the scene. In this, he is not alone in the cast, but he’s by far the most consistent. When Magouirk is on stage, though his performance as “Bobby Strong” (the romantic lead) is far from flawless, we know we’re in good hands: the energy picks up, the scene starts to move, the other actors come alive, things happen, we can hear what’s being said and sung. By the same token, no sooner has he made his exit than the tension starts to sag again. The latter half of Act II suffers in this respect, and it passes that suffering on.
Magouirk’s performance is funny, too, precisely because he refrains from the mugging that wreaks havoc on most of the other performances. He knows, perhaps intuitively, what most of the other performers apparently do not: that even in the hyper-stylized and artificial world of the Broadway Musical, someone trying to be funny is less amusing than someone trying to be serious and failing. Magouirk embodies his absurd, one-dimensional character with complete conviction. He plays it straight, as the play requires, and he responds with a lively spontaneity to what the other actors give him. I also liked Carly Crawford as “Little Sally” (How does such a loud voice come from such a small person?), and Skyler Goff as “Caldwell B. Cladwell” and Bridget Paterson as “Hope Cladwell” both have strong scenes. No one is seriously miscast. The costumes are well-conceived and executed, and on the whole, the singing in the show is quite impressive. The band (under Musical Director Ruth Seiber Johnson), manages admirably, despite the predictable and cliché-riddled score. I found at least something to admire in almost every scene.
I realize of course that I’m holding these students — and their teachers — to what is really a rather high professional standard. Perhaps that’s unfair. After all, a standing ovation has got to mean something, a testimony to the audience having been entertained. Shouldn’t that be enough? Besides, who’s the outsider here? I have no detailed knowledge of the specific training these students are getting, and hence can only speculate as to the pedagogical intentions behind this production. But I do know that this program has been an important part of the theatre community here in Asheville for many years now, as well as the incubator of many of our currently active theatre artists — professional and amateur alike. I would like to imagine that, were I an ambitious theatre student there, the perspective of someone outside my immediate school environment would be salutary, if for no other reason than this: after graduation, there’ll be nothing more between me and the audience but my hard-won skills and self-discipline, my intelligence and the depth of my commitment to the art of theatre. If I haven’t built up the courage necessary to stay in the scene with friends, how will I find it with people I don’t know, and in front of strangers?
Urinetown, The Musical, playing at UNCA’s Belk Theatre, through Sunday, April 26, evenings at 8 p.m., matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets: $10/$12/$15. Music: Mark Hollmann. Lyrics: Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis. Book: Greg Kotis. Director: Rob Bowen. Musical Director: Ruth Seiber Johnson. Choreography: Cherie Holmes.