Any kid who’s ever been on a road trip can tell you, there comes a point when you just can’t hold it any more.
That common childhood problem becomes an existential crisis in the musical “Urinetown,” a joint production of the Theatre Department and the Osher School of Music. The show is all about seeking relief from issues as wide ranging as social injustice, economic disparity, environmental pollution, and, yes, gastrointestinal discomfort.
A simple restroom stall is the height of luxury in the world we see on stage. Water is scarce after years of drought, turning plumbing and sewage control into big business. Giant corporations command exorbitant rates for each flush of a toilet. Bathroom breaks are tightly regulated leading to desperation, corruption, and even growing calls for revolution. Also, there are potty jokes.
As the director, Dr. Rachel Price Cooper guides her cast through the art of getting laughs while analyzing the tension between personal freedom and collective goodwill.
“This piece touches on all of those things,” Cooper said, “but it does so in this wonderfully comedic, absurdist way that I think the audience doesn’t necessarily feel like they’re being yelled at, so they can actually engage with it, which I think is really great for the current moment.”
“Urinetown” premiered on Broadway soon after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Its themes were viewed at the time through the perspective of the War on Terror. The show now arrives at the University of Southern Maine amid the upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Due to restrictions on social gatherings, no student productions were staged at Russell Hall in Gorham for two years. The Theatre Department returned to action in the fall with two plays, “The Marvelous Meep Island Adventure” and “She Kills Monsters.” “Urinetown” is the season’s first musical.
“We’ve been doing online things, but it’s not the same as putting on a show and developing that character, being unmasked,” said Molly Scott, a third-year Musical Theatre major. “It’s making me very emotional now. But so far, it’s been so natural to get up there and be working with all my peers again.”
Scott spoke in a break during a dress rehearsal on Tuesday, March 1. On that night, she was playing a police officer as a member of the ensemble. On alternating nights, she steps into the principal role of ingenue-turned-rebel Hope Cladwell. That arrangement applies to three of the show’s biggest parts.
The double casting was an attempt to make up for the two-year performance hiatus by allowing more students a chance to step into the spotlight. For seniors like Meg Walz, it was especially important to reclaim some of the time that the pandemic stole from their college experience.
Walz splits the role of toilet enforcer Pennywise with Chana Wingard. It was Walz’s turn to serve in the police ensemble at dress rehearsal. She exuded support, praising Wingard as “very talented, also an amazing belter.”
“It’s nice to see the subtle differences and the subtle choices between the way they feel about the role,” said Cooper. “So, I would say it’s definitely worth seeing twice for anyone who’s reading this because it is a different show based on the leads.”
The team spirit extended behind the scenes. Cooper leaned on the expertise of fellow Theatre Department lecturer Vanessa Beyland for the show’s choreography. Musical direction came from Ed Reichert, who is a lecturer at the Osher School of Music.
“Theatre is inherently collaborative but I think musical theatre is collaborative times 20,” Cooper said.
The final element in the theatre ecosystem is the audience. COVID protocols remain in place for attendance. Guests are required to wear masks and show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID tests. Seating will be limited to allow for social distancing. The cast will also wear masks back stage and only remove them while performing.
The show opened with a preview performance on Thursday, March 3. After two years apart, it didn’t take long for the actors and audience to reconnect.
“There’s always that period where they’re like, ‘Am I supposed to be laughing?’ You have to kind of give them permission to laugh,” said Cooper of the opening night crowd. “So, there are certain moments where they’re like, ‘Oh, this is ridiculous! Okay!’ So, it was nice to hear those reactions and get the big applause for certain numbers. It was great.”
“Urinetown” is playing now at the auditorium in Russell Hall and will run through March 12. In addition, a livestream performance on March 11 will make the show available to a wider online audience.