‘It’s a privilege to pee’

Butte College students present a lively musical about the high cost of pissing

Sarah Merrill as Hope, and Marcus Rutledge as Bobby in Butte College’s production of Urinetown.

Sarah Merrill as Hope, and Marcus Rutledge as Bobby in Butte College’s production of Urinetown.

Photo by Travon Henry

Urinetown: The Musical shows Friday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, 2 p.m., through Nov. 5.
Tickets (at door and www.eventbrite.com): $17/general; $10 students and seniors
Black Box TheatreARTS building
Butte College main campus

As its title suggests, Urinetown: The Musical is a play about, well, pissing. To be more specific, it’s about what happens when something as simple as taking a leak becomes an expensive commodity. Need to use the toilet? Pay up, pal. It’s a privilege to pee.

Granted, that’s not an attractive premise. Who wants to watch a play about the politics and economics of going tinkle? What makes Urinetown extraordinary is that it takes such an unlikely concept and makes it into a large-scale, politically charged and entertaining musical satire filled with dancing and song in the tradition of The Threepenny Opera.

In 2002, Urinetown won three Tony awards. A cult favorite, it opened off Broadway in 2001 but the following year moved to Broadway, where it had a very successful three-year run.

This is not an easy play to stage. It has more than 20 parts, numerous song-and-dance numbers that call for a live band as accompaniment, complex costumes, frequent set changes and several major roles that require actors who can at once sing, dance and create compelling characters.

Kudos to the Butte College Drama Department for not only having the gumption to take on such a challenging work, but also for doing a first-class job of it.

The play is set sometime in the future, following an eco-catastrophe that has led to a 20-year drought. Water has become precious and is controlled by the Urine Good Company, headed by Caldwell B. Cladwell (the amazing Bryce Corron, a man of many faces). The wealthy can afford to pay to use the “public amenities,” of which only one remains, but not the poor. Those who disobey the water laws are sent to Urinetown, a mysterious place from which no one returns.

The story is narrated by Officer Lockstock (the imposing David Loperena), who along with his partner, Officer Barrell (Garrett Vincent), is responsible for enforcing the water laws. He warns us early on: “This is not a happy musical,” he says. Shades of Les Misérables.

As the play opens, a line of desperate poor people—known collectively as the Poor—has formed at “Public Amenity #9,” the only public toilet still operating. Access to it is controlled by the hard-as-nails custodian Penelope Pennywise (Bronwyn Allen), who tells the Poor, who are clutching their crotches, “If you gotta go, you gotta go through me.”

A rebellion breaks out when Old Man Strong (Nick Reiner) is caught peeing against a wall and sent to Urinetown. The uprising is led by his son, Bobby (the excellent Marcus Rutledge), who works for Miss Pennywise as the amenity’s custodian but is sympathetic toward the suffering Poor.

Complicating matters, Bobby falls in love with Cladwell’s ingenue daughter, Hope (the bubbly Sarah Merrill), whom the rebels kidnap for use as a hostage in an effort to force her father to roll back recently enacted toilet fee hikes.

All of these developments are interspersed among—and illustrated by—the 16 or so songs and their accompanying dance numbers. The production is blessed with several strong singers, including the child-like street urchin Little Sally (Kaleigh Joyce), as well as the players already mentioned.

Tamara Allspaugh ably serves as musical director as well as conductor of the five-piece orchestra, and Melinda Buzan handles the choreography. Credit for the very effective set design, with its revolving center section that allows instant switches from the toilet scenes to the UGC’s corporate headquarters, goes to the estimable Robert Pickering.

Lynne Schuepbach designed the costumes, including the dazzling Day-Glo suits worn by the corporate honchos, and Butte’s theater instructor, Jesse Merz, directed the production—most impressively.