"What kind of musical is this?" wails a distraught orphan after the good guys think they have brought hope and change to a troubled society — but then everything suddenly falls apart. The reversal of apparent progress strikes a resonant, albeit disturbingly dissonant, chord in the timely revival of "Urinetown: The Musical" at the Lankershim Arts Center in North Hollywood.
As the corrupt cop (Ted Barton) who narrates the show delights in pointing out, this isn't a happy musical. It is, however, an excellent fit for the fierce talents of up-and-coming Coeurage Theatre Company and its populist mission to offer quality theater at pay-what-you-want ticket pricing.
Fearlessly tackling the satirical work of composer Mark Hollmann and librettist Greg Kotis, director Kari Hayter and a fine ensemble conjure up a drought-plagued dystopia in which rapacious corporate overlords profit from forcing the oppressed masses to use public bathrooms.
Harsh enforcement of the law begets anarchic insurrection reluctantly led by Bobby Strong (Daniel Bellusci), whose newfound sweetheart (Ashley Kane) turns out to be the naïvely idealistic daughter of the rapacious reigning CEO (Gary Lamb). Notables in the versatile 16-member cast include hard-rocking Janna Cardia as the jaded authoritarian who extracts pay toilet fees from the populace, and Nicole Monet as precocious orphan Little Sally, whose bantering commentary with Barton's cop comically deflates the show's theatrical artifice.
With its scene-setting video signage and its cabaret-style songs, "Urinetown" deliberately evokes the Epic Theater tradition of Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill musicals ("The Threepenny Opera," "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny"), especially in its scathing critique of unfettered capitalism.
Where Brecht rejected emotional catharsis as an impediment to action, however, much of the self-aware snark in "Urinetown" works at cross-purposes. Nothing dissipates tension more quickly than laughter. Hayter's staging further heightens this disconnect with overplayed meta-theatrical flourishes such as having the cast hold up their own headshots at the close of the Overture. The show's call to action could be much sharper, but then again we live in diminished times.
"Urinetown: The Musical"
Where: Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; ends Feb. 25
Tickets: Pay what you want
Information: (323) 944-2165 or www.coeurage.org/urinetown
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
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