Urinetown - 7 March 2014 Review

Jenna Russell as Penny was the undisputed star of the show


The St James Theatre in Victoria is quickly becoming one of my favourite new venues. After a long week, I was ready to be entertained, so off I went to take in the UK premiere of Urinetown. Other than being intrigued by the title, I knew little about the show and was unsure what to expect – a musical about urine? Sounds like a TIE tour that came to my primary school to teach us about sustainability through the medium of song and dance.

My pre-show assessment wasn’t too far off. At the heart, Urinetown is a show with a message about sustainability, which offers a dark look at a future where water is controlled by a private corporation, and citizens must pay to pee. We find ourselves in a ‘District 12’ environment where citizens can no longer afford to spend a penny, but can’t pee in the streets for fear of being carted off to the mythical ‘Urinetown’. Sounds dull on paper, but Mark Hollmann and Gregg Kotis’ musical is refreshingly self conscious and self reverential, using the medium of musical theatre to actually send quite a serious message.

My overall criticism is that the marketing seems far too sincere. The fun of the show and it’s ability to be self conscious and poke fun at itself is a key element of its charm, and audiences are completely unaware of that from outset. It therefore takes a while to buy into the concept, and the actors are forced to work extremely hard to get the audience all on the same page – something that I must admit I wasn’t fully on until the second act. Whilst the heart of the show pokes fun at the consumerist methods of the mega-musical, this does feel at times somewhat overproduced, thanks in part to Soutra Gilmour’s incredible yet overblown set. The message it is trying to present is somewhat fuzzy and at time hypoctricial, as the production grates against the message of the show and its heart.

Despite seeing a preview, this was certainly a well-oiled machine. The energy from the cast was overpowering throughout, and the intimacy of the space heightened this level of excitement and intensity that helped make the whole room feel directly involved. In an auditorium of this size there is a risk that performances are misjudged and either overplayed or reduced to nothing – but careful attention had clearly been paid in the rehearsal room. The entire cast were pitch perfect from start to finish, offering colourful, insightful and committed performances throughout.

Richard Fleeshman as revolutionary Bobby Strong proved to be a solid leading man, but was upstaged somewhat by his upper body. Amen to the costume designer who gave him a white t-shirt a good size too small. His vocals succeeded in carrying the bigger number such as the gospel inspired ‘Run, Freedom Run’ which was the musical highlight of the night, and actually exposed the rest of the score as being comparatively weak.

Jenna Russell as Penny was the undisputed star of the show, proving once again exactly why she is one of the UK’s most accomplished musical theatre performers. She excels at comedy, but her vocals seem effortless and pointed throughout. Looking surprisingly like Dame Angela in Hal Prince’s Sweeney Todd, she held the audience firmly in her grasp throughout and gave much needed weight to some of the looser moments in the book.

Alan Williams’ musical direction was incredible. Leading a six piece band and managing the vocal energy throughout is no mean feat, especially in a mid-sized auditorium. The balance was perfect and the solid vocals combined with crystal clear diction really made this satire work.

Urinetown Review London
7 March 2014, St James Theatre Studio