Funny doesn’t begin to describe “Urinetown” at Skylight

Rachel Zientek leads her pack of rebels in “Urinetown.”

If you want a love story for the ages, complete with music and crazy dresses and hats, you could easily have become wrapped up in The Royal Wedding.

But a wiser, and far less serious choice for a rollicking good time, would have been to see the musical “Urinetown” that opened at Skylight Friday night.

Harry and Meghan? Give me Bobby Strong and Hope Cladwell. Prince Charles the grumpy father? Nope, give me the runhibited John Strong. How about that darling little Princess Charlotte. Give me Little Sally just a cute and a whole lot sexier. And, you want Fergie with a little bit of an edge, take Penelope Pennywise, all edge and sharpened to a razor.

And finally, The Queen Mother, complete with rigid control and seemingly only caring about her family and not giving a hoot for the rest of humanity. Instead I’ll take the nasty and controlling Caldwell B. Cladwell.

Just a little over a year ago Skylight named Ray Jivoff as the Artistic Director to replace the recently resigned and adventurous Viswa Subbaraman. At the time Mr. Jivoff talked about his vision for Skylight.

“Next season, even the more thought-provoking shows will have a comic, fun element to them.”

Comic meet Fun!

The horrendously titled “Urinetown” several Tony awards for score, book and direction and it has overcome the horrors of it’s title to be a frequently produced musical in regional, local and collegiate companies.

The story hardly matters and can be summed up in a paragraph or two.

People in the play have to pay money to use a public toilet to pee. The toilets (and water) are controlled by a big company that wreaks havoc on the downtrodden citizenry. Finally, after all the shame and suffering, the rabbel rebel, and all ends with bad guys vanquished and good guys taking control of their own world.

In Mr. Jivoff’s production the story of the play is unimportant, and exists primarily as a setup for a gag and another gag and another gag for just about everyone in the 18-actor cast a moment or two of absolute hilarity.

The start of the whole thing gets underway with the always amazing Rick Pendzich and Officer Lockstock who acts as the narrator, explaining that we are watching a musical theater show. He also is charged – along with his partner, Officer Barrel (say their names together to get the joke) – with keeping the peeing limited to the public, for-pay toilets. Woe is to the sin of peeing somewhere that doesn’t cost any money, all of which goes to the the Urine Good Company (say it aloud), the monolith created by Cladwell B. Caldwell (Steven M. Koehler).

The jokes come fast and furious, really catching fire in the second act. The first seems a little slow and the momentum builds gradually. The problems are certainly not with the actors or band, but with the book, which seems to meander before before catching the wind.

The humor in this production comes both in the dialogue and the music.

Take, for example, Caldwell B. Caldwell’s advice to his team, and his daughter, Hope (Rachel Zientek) who has just returned from the “best college in the world.”

Dressed in a dark suit, long red tie (Trumpian for sure) and pink bunny slippers, he uses the bunny to explain how to do it.

“A LITTLE BUNNY IN THE MEADOW
IS NIBBLING GRASS WITHOUT A CARE.
HE’S SO DELIGHTFUL AS HE HOPS FOR YOU. YOU SAY, “HI, BUNNY,” AND rm STOPS POR YOU.
YOU PULL YOUR TRIGGER AND HE DROPS FOR YOU.
GOODBYE, BUNNY-BOO;
HELLO, RABBIT STEW!

DON’T BE THE BUNNY.
DON’T BE THE STEW.
DON’T BE THE DINNER.
YOU HAVE BETTER THINGS TO DO. IT AIN’T NO JOKE.
THAT’S WHY IT’S FUNNY.
SO TAKE YOUR CUE:
DON’T BE THE BUNNY.
DON’T BE THE BUNNY.”

That’s what it’s like as the evening wears on and on and on. Picking highlights is a difficult task in this uniformly solid cast. But there were moments.

After capturing Hope to hold as ransom, Little Becky Two Shoes (Haley Haupt) and Hot Blades Harry (Michael Stebbins) plan to kill her as they sing “Stuff That Girl,) while they surround her on each side.

The song is funny but as the two kidnappers push Hope back and forth, each time she moves toward Little Becky she gets slammed with her pregnant stomach. Very funny.

Every actor in this production give outstanding performances as singers, actors and dancers under the creative musical direction of David Bonofiglio and the choreography of Ryan Cappleman.

And the uber-talented Karin Simonson Kopischke creates a spectacular array of costumes that overwhelm the senses. It’s a panorama of color and style.

A special mention has to go to Rachel Zientek who is fresh off the miraculously funny role of Gret in Renaissance’s “Top Women.” Here she even further develops her formidable comedy chops and adds her lyrical soprano to the role of Hope, torn between loyalty to her father and love for the downtrodden and for Bobby.

 

Also, James Carrington, who we last saw as adelicious  Cowardly Lion at First Stage, continues his run of comic mastery as the top aide to Cladwell B. Caldwell.

“Urinetown” is the final production under Mr. Jivoff’s leadership at Skylight and it is a finish with a bang. He is obviously a man in love with musical theater and determined to return the company to what it has always been known for – the lively and entertaining evenings of music, acting and dance.

Production credits: Stage Director, Ray Jivoff; Music Director, David Bonofiglio; Choreographer, Ryan Kappelman; Scenic Designer, Brandon Kirkham; Lighting Designer, Holly Blomquist; Costume Designer, Karen Simonson Kopischke; Sound Designer, Megan B. Henninger; Production Stage Manager, Daniel J. Hanson; Production Photographer, Mark Frohna.

 

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Nothing Like the Spectacular Show from Wild Space and Milwaukee Opera Theatre

The remarkable cast from Svadba-Wedding from MOT and Wild Space

Oh, that we might have more and more collaborations between the Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Wild Space Dance Company.

If it came to pass the theatrical panorama in Milwaukee would be so much richer, so much more filled with enveloping experience and so proud of a reputation as a home for singular and inimitable theater.

The founders and muses Debra Loewen of Wild Space and Jill Anna Ponasik of MOT, have again met in the ether of some planet creative and created an unrivaled experience in Milwaukee this, or any other, season.

The production is of “Svadba – Wedding,” the award-winning eight year old vocal composition written by Montreal composer Ana Sokolovic´. To say this 55 minute piece is a remarkable experience in the Great Hall of the  Best Place in the Pabst complex is like saying the steak at Five O”Clock Club is a decent meal.

Understatement.

The story is a simple one. A young woman is about to be married and the night before the wedding she is joined by her five best friends for a final party.

Arriving at the site for the performance I was greeted by a large hall, designed like a typical wedding reception hall, round tables with strangers sitting with strangers. Two little girls dressed in simple pink dresses, greeted and sat the guests.

And then came the performance.

Let me explain that this opera has no orchestra. It has no dialogue. And it is sung entirely in Serbian.  

You heard right, Serbian, and not even traditional Serbian. Sokolovic has taken the basic language and edged and tailored it to this piece. I mean who in the world speaks Serbian beside Serbs?

This cast is made up of six women who sing and six women who dance.

It’s an amazing journey through and evening that ranges from the greetings from the bride to her five friends to the solemn ceremony sending Milica (Lydia Rose Eiche) off into an arranged marriage that she is not thrilled about.

The scenes leading from then until now resonate with a familiar feel that is unmistakable for anyone who has ever been to or in a wedding weekend.

The five girls, for example, gather at a bar for a brief celebratory moment. They start with quick vocal chops and sounds complete with doing shots, move into a melodic revelry and finally into the kind of melancholy that often comes with the fading moments of a serious party.

But this production is less about the what we are seeing and more about the how these dozen women tell the story, whatever that story may be.

With stage direction by Ms. Ponasik, choreography by Ms. Loewen and music direction by Adam Qutaishat, who appears in various spots to conduct his singers, this is a production that invites us to the wedding and makes sure we get on this ride.

The language of the music is something you can’t understand in a literal sense, it seems universal in an emotional sense. I couldn’t give you a single translation for a single word, and yet I, and it seemed the entire opening night crowd captured every single moment.

This score is a difficult one with language that is earthy and romantic and filled with the kind of vocal acrobatics rarely seen on stage.  

The singers and dancers were all wonderful. The singers (all with athletic voices) were Ms. Riche, Sarah Richardson, Kati Schwaber, Maela Schneider, Alaina Carlson and Allison Hull. The six dancers, alter-egos for the six singers, flew and floated throughout the hall. They were Chelsey Becher, Kylee Mae Karzen, Danielle Lohuis, Elisabeth Roskopf, Maggie Seer and Jimmi Renae Weyneth.

It was two years ago this month that Wild Space and MOT first came together to stage the remarkable “Song from the Uproar,” an opera marvelously conducted by Viswa Subbaraman that was one of the best and most interesting productions of the season.

Now, the two companies have done it again. They have proved that there is a hunger for new style and form in our world of theater. It’s risky of course, but with great risk comes great reward.

Let me end with sorrow at just a three day run and a plea in Serbian, the first and probably only time I will ever do this. Go look it up.

“Dajte nam još”

Production credits: Choreographer, Debra Loewen; Stage Director, Jill Anna Ponasik; Music Director, Adam Qutaishat; Assistant Stage Director, Daniel J. Brylow; Costume Designer, Leslie Vaglica; Lighting Designer, AntiShadows LLC; Stage Manager, Paula Gallarino; Production Photographer, Mark Frohna.