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Gee Whizz

Playhouse on the Square makes Urinetown its number-one priority.

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"Urine" isn't a dirty word. It's more clinical than "pee" but less serious than "micturition." It isn't whimsical like "tinkle," and it's not as common as "whizz" or as brutish as "piss." But Memphis is the obstinate buckle of the Bible Belt, and that buckle comes undone for nothing and nobody. This is God's country.

Playhouse on the Square's executive producer Jackie Nichols says some Memphians have gotten their panties in a wad over his theater's use of the U-word. Angry calls have been registered, and posters for Urinetown: the Musical were removed from public places. What's especially remarkable about all of this is that Urinetown, for all its potty talk, is positively sanitary. It's virtually free of profanity and about as fun-packed and wholesome as a play about vast public corruption and the annihilation of an impoverished, plague-stricken city can be.

Bill Andrews plays Urinetown's narrator, Officer Lockstock. With gravity and good humor, he addresses the audience directly, explaining that his city is suffering a drought and that private urination has been outlawed. If people want to pee, they have to pay, and those who don't play by the rules are arrested and shipped off to a place called Urinetown. Lockstock, aided by Little Sally (played with grubby, waifish spunk by Megan Bowers), also lays down the dramatic rules governing musicals. "Too much exposition" can kill a musical, Andrews says. Bowers squeaks that a "bad name" could be equally devastating.

All of Urinetown's politicians are in the pocket of the Urine Good Company, headed by the deliciously evil CEO Caldwell B. Cladwell, played to the nines by Playhouse vet Ken Zimmerman. Zimmerman waddles and squawks his way through Urinetown, spinning dark treachery into delightful foolishness along the way.

Jordan Nichols, Jackie's talented progeny, returns from New York to sing and dance his way through the demanding role of Urinetown's Bobby Strong. After Cladwell's daughter Hope teaches Bobby to listen to his heart, the young man causes an uprising at Public Amenity #9, kidnaps the girl, and becomes the spiritual leader of the huddled, unwashed masses who yearn to pee freely. Rachael Saltzman brings an endearingly dizzy quality to Hope and doesn't lose her comic edge as she transforms from conflicted hostage to righteous revolutionary.

Costumed like that icon of American propaganda Rosie the Riveter, Carla McDonald lends her powerful voice and considerable comic gifts to the role of Penny Pennywise, a latter-day Mother Courage who makes virtue of necessity.

Urinetown's author, Greg Kotis, cut his teeth with Chicago's Neo-Futurists, the clever collective behind the long-running surrealist hit Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. Like Too Much Light, Urinetown aims to be uncompromisingly artistic without sacrificing its commercial edge. Its tone and structure have been lifted directly from the groundbreaking Brecht/Weill musical The Threepenny Opera, but it's tempered by the kind of sophomoric, fart-laden musical parodies we've come to expect from Mel Brooks.

With a light touch and laser accuracy, director Bob Hetherington eviscerates all the ridiculous tropes of musical theater and even manages to take an unforgettable poke at Thornton Wilder's classic play Our Town.

Urinetown's finest attribute is its ability to stimulate the mind as well as the funny bone. Just when you think you know the heroes from the villains, the ground shifts to make you reconsider everything. Just as Threepenny Opera closes with near tragedy that's supplanted by a fake happy ending, Urinetown's fake happy ending evolves into genuine tragedy. It's a sad, sad story told by a brilliant comic and enthusiastically interpreted by an impressive troupe of actors, singers, and dancers.

So don't take down the posters. Please.

Urinetown: the Musical

Playhouse on the Square

Through July 23rd

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