'Urinetown' a 'spoof of American ideals'

Tom Frye admits he wasn't the greatest fan of the satirical, Tony Award-winning musical "Urinetown" — until he was asked to direct it as the spring musical for theater students at Wichita State University.

"I had heard the music and knew the story, although I'd never seen it," Frye said of the quirky show, which makes fun of itself for having the worst title in the history of Broadway. "I appreciated the sharp satire of corporate greed versus the common man.

"But I have become the biggest fan of the show since I've seen what this remarkable cast has done with it. They were so enthusiastic, they came to the first rehearsal totally prepared. All we've had to work on are tweaking details."

The musical, which opens Thursday and runs through Sunday in Wilner Auditorium, is a wickedly funny and risque tale of a future society where a 20-year drought has forced such extreme water conservation that private toilets have been outlawed. Only public facilities owned by the monopolistic Urine Good Company are available, and folks have to "Pay to Pee," according to an opening song. If people don't have the money and try to use the bushes — or anywhere else — for free, they are arrested and exiled to the dreaded Urinetown of the title.

But when the son of one such exile leads a public protest against the apparently heartless, government-sanctioned toilet monopoly, he creates a political uproar that shakes the stable foundations of the Establishment.

Written by Greg Kotis with music by Mark Hollmann and lyrics by both, the irreverent tale is sort of Kurl Weill or Bertolt Brecht for the new millennium. Garnering nine Tony nominations, it won for best book, score and direction. But the show also won over Broadway-savvy audiences with sly jabs at other famous musicals, like "Fiddler on the Roof" and "West Side Story."

"We've added a few more of our own in choreography or bits of action or costuming," Frye said. "Our group has come up with very clever bits for 'A Chorus Line,' 'Jesus Christ Superstar,' 'Les Miz,' 'Chicago' — we even throw in 'Evita.' "

The musical, which will be 10 years old next year, was an amusing anomaly during its first years because the country was in a relatively prosperous period. Now, in the wake of the financial crisis of the past two years that has tightened a lot of belts, the show has taken on some significant real-world resonance, Frye said.

"It's basically a spoof of American ideals — Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, corporate power and common man heroism. But it's not an idealistic portrait of one side or the other," he said. "It shows how corporate greed can hurt poor people, but when they revolt, they discover that without adequate business leadership, they go bankrupt. The show is about the need for balance between the sides. That's the lesson for today's politics."

Playing the idealistic young revolutionary Bobby Strong is Jacob January. The greedy corporate bigwig Caldwell B. Cladwell is Luke Walker. Cladwell's privileged daughter, Hope, who begins to share Bobby's populist leanings, is Lauren Rust. Crotchety toilet caretaker Penelope Pennywise, who has a dark secret that upends the show, is Dani Young.

Officer Lockstock (Zak Smith) and his adoring assistant, Barrel (Brian Yeakley), are no-nonsense enforcers of the brutal toilet laws. Lockstock and Little Sally (Alex Johnson), one of the poor rebels, act as narrators to keep the audience up with the twists and turns.

If you go


What: 2001 Tony-winning satirical musical presented by Wichita State University theater students

Where: Wilner Auditorium on WSU campus

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. April 18

How much: Tickets: $16 general admission, $14 seniors-military-faculty, $6 students; call WSU box office at 316-978-3233.