Urinetown, the Musical

The Tony Award-winning musical “Urinetown” takes place in a large city where a 20-year-long drought has led the government to ban private toilets. Citizens are forced to use public restrooms, which are regulated by a single large company, one that is corrupt. Urinetown is where folks who break the law get sent.

The premise, of course, seems pretty far-fetched, except perhaps here in Santa Barbara, where our modest seven-year cyclical water shortages have resulted in some “drastic” measures: not being served water in restaurants unless requested on the low end, and a hugely expensive desalination plant that was eventually mothballed and dismantled on the other.

But clearly “Urinetown” is fiction, meant to make people laugh. It’s how it makes people laugh that is the neat trick. Rather than focusing on the cheap joke or going for uncomfortable laughter through scatological references, the show is full of satire and parody, poking fun both at itself and other landmark musicals, including most memorably “Les Miserables.”

“Urinetown” was supposed to open on Broadway September 11, 2001. When the show did finally raise its curtain two weeks later – the first to open after the terrorist attacks – it was hailed by one magazine as “the show that saved Broadway.”

“It was the perfect show for that time in New York,” says Erik Stein, the Actors Equity member who plays Officer Lockstock, in charge of both enforcing the pay-toilet rules and serving as the show’s narrator. “It’s so funny; a great escape that allows you to just laugh. Two hours of really clever humor.”

The musical garnered Tony awards for its book and score and was nominated for Best Musical, but unlike more recent smashes such as “Movin’ Out,” “Spamalot” and “Mama Mia,” it didn’t really attract a great deal of attention outside New York. Touring companies have been minimal, and very few regional theaters have attempted to mount productions.

Which makes PCPA’s season-closing presentation all the more appealing. Stein discussed “Urinetown” – which opens Friday in Solvang – over the telephone late last week

Q. First things first. Is there a lot of bathroom humor in the show?

A. No, not at all. There are stupid puns like the pay-toilet corporation being called Urine Good Company, but mostly it’s really smart, clever, and witty. Even calling it Pee-G is really overstating it. There’s no potty humor at all. That’s what made it so clever, because there are no cheap jokes like that in the script. It’s more a cautionary tale. So witty that it catches you off-guard. And it makes fun of itself. Not to ruin anything but the first line that gets spoken is one of the characters pointing out the name and asking “Is anyone going to come see this show, because the title is so awful.” There is constant self-referential humor.

How does it compare to a typical musical we usually see in Solvang?

Oh, it’s so fresh and new. It really is something you haven’t seen before. It’s like “Les Miz” meets “Guys and Dolls” with asides to “West Side Story” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” It has no precedent, especially in this area. The majority of the people both seeing it and working on it have had no exposure to the show before, which is pretty rare in musical theater. Usually, it’s just perhaps a new take on an old classic, or something re-imagined for the outdoor stage. But “Urinetown” is brand new and exciting for the actors too. The show makes no attempt to be traditional all, and it’s very aware that it’s not.

So do we learn something via the play?

Well, it’s such a ridiculous zany premise, but it actually does have something to say. It’s a cautionary tale that asks a lot of questions but is smart enough to not try to provide any easy answers. It takes greedy corporations to task, but it also goes after those with their head in the skies who think love is the answer to everything. What we hope is that you will talk about it, not just on the car ride home, but for a few days afterwards.

“Urinetown” runs from August 31 through September 23. PCPA has an excellent website at: pcpa.org, where you’ll find the complete schedule of performances; box office number is 805-922-8313.