The cast of 'Urinetown', the new Circle Theatre production at Madison Street Theatre.Photos courtesy Circle Theatre

First off, don’t be put off by the uninviting title. Yes, “Urinetown” sounds pretty repulsive, but that’s part of the joke.

Circle Theatre’s new production is a delightfully funny, enormously energetic musical that’s fit for the entire family. It’s really not about bodily functions but about power, exploitation and love. The coarsest word in the show is “pee.” There’s no nudity or profanity. Urinetown is quirky, clever, and smart — the most dynamic musical I’ve seen in a long while. Eventually, I imagine we’ll be seeing high school productions of this inventive, wacky show.

Director Kevin Bellie’s snappy staging and inventive choreography make Urinetown especially exuberant and sassy. The huge song-and-dance numbers just keep coming.

The show may sound like a real downer but, trust me, it’s far from it. The entire Circle production is overflowing with talent. There’s not a weak link, except possibly for the few times the lyrics get lost during some of the louder, more raucous songs.

The smart, innovative script and rollicking score were written and composed by former “storefront” Chicagoans Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann. The work opened Off Broadway exactly 10 years ago in September 2001, right after 9/11. Urinetown, providing much needed escapism and comic relief, subsequently moved to Broadway, where it ran for over two years and won three Tony Awards.

The plot is really simple. In the bleak, not-so-distant totalitarian future, because an unending drought has caused a catastrophic water shortage, private toilets are now illegal. Citizens are forced to use public latrines owned by the corrupt Caldwell B. Cladwell (Kirk Swenk). All restroom activities are controlled by Cladwell’s mega-corporation called “Urine Good Company” (UGC). Harsh laws are enforced. There is no such thing as a free pee. If someone breaks the pay-to-pee rule, the offender is dragged off to Urinetown, a dreaded penal colony, never to be seen again.

The masterful Swenk is hilarious as the dastardly CEO of UGC. He’s a miserly moneygrubber, a comic book villain who exploits the poor. His number, “Don’t Be the Bunny,” brings down the house.

Sweet but spunky ingénue Hope Cladwell, his big-hearted debutante daughter, is played by Laura Savage.

Tough-as-nails Penny Pennywise (Carolyn Brady Riley) collects all the fees. Riley is a standout with her song, “It’s a Privilege to Pee” (“If you gotta go, you’ve gotta go through me”). Her number brings to mind “When You’re Good to Mama” from the musical Chicago.

Pennywise is assisted by handsome, wholesome young Bobby Strong (Greg Sclavi), who gets fed up when his father (Will Nifong) is deported to Urinetown for relieving himself in the alley. Heroic Bobby leads a revolution against the oppressive urinary laws. He also falls for Hope, not knowing her true identity. In duet they sing “Follow Your Heart.” Hope initially seems ditzy and naïve but soon becomes a veritable Patty Hearst, rejecting her greedy father and becoming a leader in the people’s revolution for urinary freedom.

The cast of 17 is a terrific ensemble, with many of the minor roles doubled up so effectively the company seems almost twice its size.

Waif-like street urchin Little Sally, a precocious, curly-headed moppet, is played with great comic flair by Brook Sherod Jacky.

Cladwell’s “yes man” is Todd Duty. Matthew Wilson Miles is the hopelessly corrupt Senator Fipp.

Urinetown challenges basic concepts of what makes a musical. Each number is a witty parody of a particular show and pokes fun at almost every theatrical convention imaginable. But if you’re not a musical lover, have no fear. You don’t need to recognize whether the various bits being satirized come from Fiddler On the Roof or West Side Story. One number, for instance, plays like a swirl of girls from a 1930s Busby Berkeley picture; another becomes a proletarian tableau right out of Les Miserables. All the send-up is fresh and cleverly done.

The lively pit band, composed of Peter J. Storms (piano), Dolan McMillan (percussion), Lara Regan (reeds), and Travis Cook (brass), provides terrific musical support. They keep the joint jumping from behind the industrial-looking grillwork of the huge bi-level set by Bob Knuth that looks like it’s out of the old sci-fi thriller “Metropolis.” Storms is the musical director, and Jesus Perez’s grungy chic costumes amplify the fun.

Patti Roeder, playing insurrectionist Bobby’s mother, is a veritable ongoing sight gag.

Allison Thawley is stage manager. Gary C. Echelmeyer designed the lighting.

During the intermission opening night, the lines for the bathroom seemed amusingly redundant. Perhaps it was the power of suggestion, watching the masses on stage waiting to use the pay latrines, that made the lobby queue longer than usual. Life does imitate art.

“Nothing can kill a show quicker than a bad title,” one of the characters comments. Happily, that’s not really true. If you have an off-beat sense of humor, you’ll love this laugh-out-loud musical comedy.

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Doug Deuchler

Doug Deuchler has been reviewing local theater and delving into our history for Wednesday Journal for decades. He is alsoa retired teacher and school librarian who is also a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent...