CSU Theatre’s Urinetown: The Musical uses satire to capture modern political discord

Urinetown promotional poster~ By Brody Hornaday, publicity intern, with Jennifer Clary

During last week’s evening rehearsal, the stage of the University Theater was filled with students singing their hearts out in a musical about a pertinent political dystopia where citizens need to pay to use the toilet.

Urinetown: The Musical, Colorado State University Theatre’s new satirical musical packed with relevant themes, is not your typical show. Despite critics being unsure of how the production would fare when it first opened in 2001, the musical ended up with 965 performances on Broadway and won several Tony awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Musical Score. At CSU, the show runs April 27 – May 5.

Greg Kotis, the author of Urinetown, is a New York-based playwright specializing in dark, disturbing comedies that contain underlying socially relevant themes. Kotis’ mission was to be both funny and true to how he saw things through a show that tries to deal with anxiety and fear of what lies on the horizon.

Guest director Richard Cowden

A longtime pillar of the arts in the Denver area and friend of CSU Theatre Director Price Johnston, Richard Cowden returns to Colorado to guest direct the musical. When asked how the audience will be able to relate to such a script, he believes it will be surprisingly well-received.

“Despite its atypical title, Urinetown is a fairly traditionally structured American musical that happens to have a rather absurd premise,” Cowden said. “Along the way, the script and score both offer sharp parodies of classic American musicals — people will recognize elements of shows like Les Miserables, West Side Story, and a timely parable about corruption and human dignity. There’s a lot for everyone.”

In 2007, Cowden directed Urinetown while on faculty at Colorado Mesa University. Like any great piece of theatre, he says that as a director, the play presents multiple challenges but that it’s terrific to start with a new design team, a new cast, and a very different performance space. Working alongside David Horger and Patricia Goble, the musical directors, and choreographer Matthew Harvey, has provided him with confidence that they are creating the best production possible. In addition, Cowden says that he couldn’t be prouder of the cast.

“On its face it seems quite simple and goofy, but the musical score contains deft melodic and harmonic structures, and the script requires the cast to walk a very fine and tricky line between campy humor, stinging satire, and honest, truthful acting,” Cowden said. “They’re smart, talented, and driven to make this production a very memorable one for the department, and I am blown away every night by what they’re bringing to the table.”

a female and male cast member singing
Sydney Fleishman and Jake Cuddemi rehearse a duet from the show.

A preposterous premise?

Theatre student Sydney Fleishman plays Hope Cladwell, an optimistic, well-intentioned sort of airhead who is the love interest of the show’s protagonist, Bobby Strong, played by Jake Cuddemi. Aligned with her character’s intentions, Fleishman wants Urinetown to provide the audience with an entertaining break, but also wants their efforts to strike a chord with patrons about our current times.

“I hope audiences can better understand the world in which they live, a world that is filled with injustice and oppression,” said Fleishman. “I want them not only to understand that, but to feel compelled to make a difference or change their perspective on certain social issues.”

Many people look at Urinetown with a similar impression: that it’s a preposterous musical comedy about inequality and oppression. However, Fleishman believes there is more that all audiences can understand and relate to, saying, “It’s also about justice and reclaiming those individual rights, while looking at the future with hope.”

Protagonist and antagonist walk into a theatre

While tackling a script that takes a lot of physical and emotional work, Fleishman is very grateful to be surrounded by such a motivated cast. “Some of the cast members are my best friends, so it’s great to come into rehearsal every night and work with them and share a lot of laughs,” she said. “We are more than just a team, we are a family.”

theatre students rehearse a song from the show
Theatre student Bruce Gammonley enjoys the rehearsal processl.

Bruce Gammonley, another theatre student at CSU, is playing the main antagonist in his first musical; his character, Mr. Cladwell, leads the corruption that runs the city and is Hope Cladwell’s father. Gammonley says that his character is a “quintessential evil capitalist,” which is interesting to keep in mind when comparing his interpretation of the script with Fleishman’s.

“The play is kind of a warning. The mismanagement of resources has led to a sort of post-apocalyptic dystopia,” explained Gammonley. “Without getting into spoilers, it’s also a warning that good intentions are not enough, and some facts are just unavoidable.”

While he views the script as a sort of warning, Gammonley still appreciates its unique style and the ridiculous world it portrays. “To them, it is literally life or death even though the premise of the show centers around a bathroom,” Gammonley chuckled. “The play stands entirely on its own even without any knowledge of its hidden references, so any audience will love it!”

Performing a musical is never a small task, but audiences can be assured that the director, production team, and cast are giving it their all.

“When musicals are well-produced, they lead us through a whole spectrum of our own emotions and allow us to experience stories that stay with us for a lifetime,” said Cowden. “And I guess that’s what I hope people will walk out with — oh, and a helluva lot of laughs. I mean it is a show about pee.”

Urinetown: The Musical opens on Friday, April 27, at 7:30 p.m., with nightly performances on April 28 and May 3-5. The show will have two matinees on April 29 and May 6 at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at csuartstickets.com.