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Urinetown returns in a local production, but some of the original's flow is lost.

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Urinetown the Musical

Mercury Theater

The 2001 Broadway hit Urinetown provides welcome relief from the forced sentiment, facile plotting, simplistic characterization, and strong-arm optimism of many other popular musicals. Written by Chicago's Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann--who plied their brainy craft here more than a decade ago as part of Cardiff Giant--it pointedly ridicules every hoary convention of musical theater while demonstrating how wit and intelligence can transform those conventions into thrilling theater.

Urinetown's most obvious target is the sort of Depression-era social commentary epitomized by Marc Blitzstein's 1937 "proletarian opera" The Cradle Will Rock, which is full of prounion song-and-dance numbers that drive home its self-righteous lefty message. Contemporary director and critic Harold Clurman dismissed that show as "boyishly sentimental and comically theatrical," and those are the shortcomings Kotis and Hollmann mine in this parody, the story of a populist uprising against capitalist greed. In an unnamed city, ruthless businessman Caldwell B. Cladwell has taken advantage of severe water shortages, caused by a 20-year drought, to make everyone pay for the privilege of peeing: all public toilets are run by his monopolistic Urine Good Company. When Cladwell's idealistic daughter, Hope, falls in love with Bobby Strong, an idealistic bathroom attendant, the two of them lead an ill-fated revolution against Malthusian economics.

In this delightfully overwrought tale Kotis and Hollmann not only lampoon multiple musical-comedy staples--patter songs, hot jazz numbers, bluesy anthems--but squeeze in extended quotes from West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, and Les Miserables. Their most ingenious satire, however, comes from the lips of Little Sally, a street urchin perpetually puzzled by the horrors around her--not the horrors of capitalism run amok but the horrors of a script riddled with holes. That's just life in a musical, she's told by street-tough Officer Lockstock, the show's narrator.

Since the most unconvincing elements of unconvincing musicals are the actors bent on showing how much they mean everything, a Urinetown cast is presented with a unique opportunity to play in a giddy realm of sardonic fantasy. In this realm a finely crafted, sharply staged production number like the ridiculous gospel tribute to cowardice "Run, Freedom, Run" can be completely satisfying. The schematic love affair between generic hero Bobby and cardboard ingenue Hope--conveyed by a single romantic ballad on a rolling-stair unit, because that's how it's done in musicals--can be ludicrous yet bring a genuine lump to the throat.

That's how things should be in Urinetown, and that's how they were in the original Broadway production (which won three Tony awards) and, to a lesser extent, the touring show that played here in 2003. But director Tom Mullen's staging never makes the leap into giddiness because the satire isn't focused. Every moment of the New York production felt steeped in Broadway lore, but Mullen's show seems disjointed, jumping from one absurdity to the next. Toilet manager Penelope Pennywise, for example, should be a cartoonish descendant of Brecht's Mother Courage. But here Pennywise is a failed Hollywood femme fatale, a take on the character that Christine Sherrill plays for hammy laughs.

Still, a talented cast of local and Broadway performers makes this a largely entertaining evening. The satire may be limp, but much of the show's ample shtick is well played. As Hope and Bobby, Tamara Spiewak and Michael Buchanan deliver satisfyingly economical performances in pitch-perfect voices. Michael Sobie's musical direction is generally crisp, although often the lyrics are inaudible, perhaps because of the Mercury's acoustics. Brian Loeffler's choreography, which borrows liberally from John Carrafa's original Broadway version, exploits the idiosyncratic movements of the nondancer cast but often crowds too many people into a muddle, as if the dancing were intended for a stage three times this size.

An explosively appreciative audience at the final preview seemed to adore this production, and maybe most musical-theater lovers will too. But for those who love to hate musicals, this Urinetown is bound to disappoint: it fails to convey the snap and scope of its intelligent, lively book and songs.

When: Open run: Wed-Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 5 and 8:30 PM, Sun 5 PM

Where: Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport

Price: $45-$48.50

Info: 773-325-1700

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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