Friday, May 28, 2004

Theatre Saturday: You Oughta Go!

Urinetown, now playing in Toronto at the Bluma Appel, is great. I loved it. It is smarter than The Producers or Hairspray, genuinely subversive, and the most fun I've had at the theatre in a long while.

Richard Ouzounian over at The T-Star loved it as much as I did, thus temporarily redeeming himself in my eyes. The Globe and Mail's Kamal Al-Solaylee on the other hand didn't like it and, in my opinion, that's because he didn't get it. Writes Kamal: "[T]he only thing that Urinetown ultimately stands for is the preservation of frat boys' bodily function humour and the sophomoric notion that setting plays to music is an inherently funny idea."

How RIDICULOUS! (So ridiculous I broke my blog's 'no capitalization' rule.) There's nothing sophomoric about the humour in Urinetown at all. There's only one pee-pee joke and it's the premise -- a town where a malevolent corporation has privatized peeing. I mean, they have a throw-away gag about Malthus for god's sake.

Urinetown is just not his type of show, I guess. Kamal, just returned from wankeriffic trip to New York where he reviewed shows that have been open for years, has a real a hard-on for The Producers. You may remember his glowing Producers review, which began with the sentence, "Hooray to the American musical comedy!" His Urinetown review echoes that insipid opening and confirms that Kamal is incapable of writing a smart lede. "Poor musical theatre!" it begins.
Compare it to The Producers, that sublime, smart and sassy homage to musical theatre, and you'll find it lacking in every possible way. At the heart of the Mel Brooks musical is a clearly defined target and an endearing affection to musicals, sorely missing here.
Apples and oranges, baby. It's like the difference between the Royal Canadian Air Farce and The Daily Show. Look, The Producers is a good time, but its jokes are old, as is its structure and aesthetic. It's a fond look back, not a way forward for musicals. It's the last hoorah of classic American musical comedy.

Now, I'm not so sure that Urinetown shows the way forward either. But it shouldn't be dismissed as simply a spoof. It is a clever satire, one that attacks not a single ideology or belief, but delusions from across the political spectrum. It has fun at the expense of faceless and greedy modern corporations, but also mocks our idealised and patronizing notions of the nobility of the poor. It questions ideas of romance and revolution, freedom and environmentalism. And somehow it does this without becoming cynical. It is a decidedly "On the Fence" musical, I'd say.

Here's why you shouldn't trust Kamal's review. He writes: "We expect our satire to be savvy but not preachy, and Urinetown is that ultimate contradiction: a spoof of the nobler sentiments of musical theatre with hokey, pseudo-environmental sentiments of its own." To use an Ecklerism: Gaa! It's like he wasn't in attendance for the second act at all, where everything is turned on its head (reminding me of the second act of Sondheim's Into the Woods). There's nothing preachy about Urinetown.

Later, Kamal attacks the play for its "deconstructive, postmodern pretensions (which it doesn't even do well, and when it does, it hammers you over the head with it)." The way I read it, the show is mocking postmodern, meta-theatrical fare as much as it mocks Kander and Ebb or Les Miserables or Fiddler on the Roof. Kamal seems to have taken the show at face value and missed a crucial level of what makes it funny. In brief: He's taken it entirely too seriously.

Finally Mr. Speaker, despite what Kamal writes, Urinetown has a fine score. At least two songs have been stuck in my head since Thursday. I am humming one right now.

Well, this has been an interesting week indeed. Ouzounian is back in my good books and Al-Solaylee is back out. What is the world coming to?

Hooray for Urinetown, biatch!

[Speaking of Thomas Malthus, father of the idea of over-population, this is, believe it or not, the second time I have ever heard him referenced in a musical, the other being Job: The Hip-Hop Musical. I ran into Jerome and Eli from Job the other day. They're going to be performing at Just For Laughs this year, doing a fifteen minute Hip-hop for Dummeez routine. In fact, they're testing out the material over at the Tarragon Theatre arts fair right now, if you're in the 'hood.]

Post-script

Here's my article about Urinetown's title, which sprung from a rumour that was going around -- spread by the Globe and Mail's James Adams in his Saturday gossip column -- that advance sales were for the show were less than expected because Canadians were squeamish about the title.

CanStage's Marty Bragg was understandably irritated by Adams' piece. That kind of buzz can sink a show. When I spoke to Bragg about it, he said: "I don't know who the hell [Adams] was talking to."

Well, Adams was talking to one of the CanStage publicists it turns out, who explained her side of the story to me in an e-mail: "Vis-a-vis James Adams. He was a bit of a pill. He and I were chatting about the show, which is a lot of fun -- but with an awful title. We never talked about tickets, let alone ticket sales --- he just assumed since we were discussing the challenge of the title that tickets sales were slow."

So there you go. Oops! I said 'go'. How sophomoric and frat-boy of me!

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