Laguna Beach High School is taking a wee bit of a wager in presenting “Urinetown” this month.
Those who conjure visions of South Park-style antics have been shocked to learn that the musical was a hit on the Great White Way, luring luminaries like John Cullum to star and winning several Tony Awards in 2002.
But the Broadway stunner has languished in relative obscurity west of the Hudson. In Tennessee, posters advertising the show have been torn down; here in Laguna, some parents have taken offense to the show’s title and sought to prevent youngsters from attending the production.
Ironically, the show’s title itself is mocked by actors in the beginning of the show.
“It’s timely because the story is centered on a water shortage,” director and drama teacher Mark Dressler said. “There are issues of drought, the relationships between corporations and politicians, and using fear as a political wedge.”
Which isn’t to say the show isn’t drop-dead hysterical. It is.
The play, by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, is known for its sharp, witty take on the role of government — perfect fodder for this time in history, Dressler said.
“It has a meaning behind it, but it’s hilarious, which makes it 10 times better,” student actress Celena Del Pizzo-Howell said.
“It is especially cool to bring to our community a newer musical that is not as well-known as some of our other choices,” Dressler said.
“Of course everybody loves the shows that they are already familiar with, but this is an opportunity for Laguna families to see a newer musical.”
Dressler admits the show is a personal favorite; he has seen the show multiple times on Broadway, at UCI and in Solvang, and has taken multiple student groups to see the show at all of those locations.
The story, which emulates Bertold Brecht’s “Three-Penny Opera” and “Mother Courage and Her Children,” is set in the not-so-distant future, when a 20-year drought has led to the banning of private bathrooms.
To use the facilities, citizens must pay a fee. Those who are caught relieving themselves in non-government-sanctioned places are sent to Urinetown — a sort of Australia for piddling convicts.
A corporation operates the toilets, and provides kickbacks to the local government.
When everyman Bobby Strong realizes there is more to life than paying exorbitant fees to do what theoretically could be done anywhere, he seeks to bring about a revolution.
His goal: to be free to pee, sans fee.
“The cast is really strong; it couldn’t be any better,” Dressler said. “Everybody’s really thriving in their part.”
Dressler was especially enthusiastic about Graham Harris, who is playing the lead as Strong.
“The kid’s got such an honest grain of integrity in his character,” Dressler said. “He’s doing a great job.”
Real-life newly crowned homecoming queen Kelly Hancock stars as Hope Cladwell, who has freshly returned, bright-eyed and idealistic, from The Most Expensive University in the World.
Her father, Caldwell B. Cladwell, played by Brendan McGrady, owns the company that runs the toilets. He attempts to steer her through her new life as a fax/copy girl at his corporation, Urine Good Company.
(All right, so there is a little potty humor in the show.)
“Gosh, Daddy,” Hope says. “I never realized large, monopolizing corporations could be such a force for good in the world.”
“Few do,” her father smiles.
Del Pizzo-Howell plays Penelope Pennywise, who collects urinal fees — a hardened woman who transforms throughout the show.
“It’s probably the first time I’ve done such an emotional range,” Del Pizzo-Howell said. “It’s a very good learning experience. I really want to pursue this as a career.”
Dressler has invited teacher Peter Gomez, who used to teach English at the high school, to bring a class of students from his school in Los Angeles. Gomez is the new drama teacher there, and hopes to pick up some pointers for his own program.
“I think it’s going to be a great exchange of friendship and education,” Dressler said. Following the performance, the students will enjoy a reception together.
The department designed its own sets and costumes. In addition, this is the first time Dressler has used a professional orchestra in one of his student shows; he usually stages musicals in the spring, when orchestra students aren’t busy with marching band.
“They’re just amazing,” he said of the orchestra.
The result is an homage to musical theater, part “Les Miserables,” part “Our Town,” part “Evita.” A dance number emulates “West Side Story,” and songs like “Too Much Exposition” lay waste to the chestnuts of musical theater.
Rather than attempt to make the audience forget they are watching live theater, the show uses Brecht’s method of “Epic Theatre,” wherein the cast often speaks directly to the audience.
A police officer serves as a Sophocles-style chorus, explaining — sometimes yelling — key story points to the rows in front of him.
Other music ranges from gospel to a classic love song.
Early links to “Les Misérables” unravel as the show goes on; neither pure socialism nor pure capitalism is the answer, the show demonstrates.
Dressler hopes audiences won’t pooh-pooh the show based on its controversial title.
“The kids find it to be a very meaningful experience,” Dressler said. “It’s not just entertaining; it’s thought-provoking as well.”
“People have to take a risk,” Del Pizzo-Howell said.
IF YOU GO
WHO: Laguna Beach High School Park Avenue Players
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9, 10, 15, 16 and 17; 2:30 p.m. Nov. 11 and 18
WHERE: Artists’ Theatre, 625 Park Ave.
COST: $12 adults, $10 students, $15 reserved
INFORMATION: (949) 497-7769