‘The joke works best when you don’t smile’

PAD presents ‘Urinetown’ in Edison Theatre Oct. 20-22; Oct. 27-29

The Performing Arts Department will present "Urinetown," the Tony Award-winning musical by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann, in Edison Theatre for two consecutive weekends Oct. 20-29. (Photo: Jerry Naunheim Jr./Washington University)

Environmental catastrophe upends the social order. Private functions fuel corporate profits. Oppressed masses rebel against privileged politicians.

Don’t laugh. This is “Urinetown.”

“It’s a dark, dystopian drama that touches on serious themes,” deadpanned Jeffery Matthews, professor of practice in the Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences, who will direct the Tony Award-winning show in Edison Theatre for two consecutive weekends Oct. 20-29.

“But it’s also incredibly funny,” Matthews said. “The trick is finding the right balance. As an actor, you have to play it honestly, with integrity. You have to commit to the thing, however absurd, that your character is pursuing.

“You can’t just wink at the audience.”

Ethan Evans as Bobby Strong. (Photo: Jerry Naunheim Jr./Washington University)

‘Urine Good Company’

Set 20 years after a devastating drought, “Urinetown” centers on the burgeoning romance between Bobby Strong, assistant custodian at Public Amenity #9, and Hope Caldwell, a recent graduate of “the world’s most expensive university.”

But soon Bobby’s father, Old Man Strong, is arrested for failing to pay his daily restroom admission, while Hope’s father, the CEO of Urine Good Company (UGC), colludes with a senator to raise prices further.

“In response to the drought, government officials removed toilets from private homes and gave UGC all water management responsibilities,” Matthews said. “Now people have to pay to go to the bathroom. And if they can’t, they’re ‘Sent to Urinetown,’ which is just a euphemism for being thrown off a building.”

Pining for a better world, Bobby and Hope resolve to follow their hearts — but their wide-eyed optimism quickly leads to rebellion, kidnapping and a ragtag revolution that may or may not foster meaningful change.

Yet, for all the satiric bite, “Urinetown” is also a love letter to classic musical theater, evoking “Guys and Dolls,” “Threepenny Opera,” “Dreamgirls” and more. “It’s both parody and homage,” Matthews said. “At one point, everything just turns into ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ Which is funny, but which also creates an ironic distance. You’re always being pulled out of the action to think about what’s really happening on stage.”

For the cast, maintaining that ironic distance means executing one of the most difficult maneuvers in show biz: keeping a straight face.

At a recent rehearsal, “I asked one actor to make a really bold choice,” Matthews said. “It was huge, it was truthful and it was terribly funny. And everyone started cracking up. But I stopped them. That’s not where this play lives.

“The joke works best when you don’t smile.

“Laughing is the audience’s job.”

Cast members (from left:) Camden Sabathne as Tiny Tom; Carly Rosenbaum as Penelope Pennywise; and Mario Davila as Robby the Stockfish. (Photos: Jerry Naunheim Jr./Washington University)

Cast & crew

The cast of 26 stars Ethan Evans as Bobby and Shelby Davis as Hope. Alexa Rodriquez Pagano is the narrator Little Sally. Laura Lee Kyro and Ricki Pettinato are officers Lockstock and Barrell.

Victor Mendez and Sarah James are Bobby’s parents, Old Man Strong and Ma Strong. Brandon Krisko is the CEO, Caldwell B. Caldwell. Carly Rosenbaum is Bobby’s boss, Penelope Pennywise. Jens Damgaard is Senator Fipp. Mark Fernandez is Dr. Billeaux. Annie Butler is Ms. McQueen. Rebecca Williams is Mrs. Millennium.

Sarah Beshke and Danny Guttas are the rebels Little Becky Two-Shoes and Hot Blades Harry. Mario Davila is Robby the Stockfish; Jessy Martinez is Soupy Sue. Dennis Murray and Camden Sabathne are Tiny Tom and Billy Boy Bill.

Sam Gaitsch and Alexandria Moore and Cop 1 and Cop 2. Emma Flannery plays UGC staff. Katherine Cai, Jordan Kassab, Zoe Liu and Abigail Wippel are The Poor.

Costumes are by Erika Frank, with assistance from Mona Jahani. Sets are by Sydney Shafer. Lighting and sound are by Eric Elz and Jon Zielke. Dramaturg is Justin Wright. Music director is Todd Decker. Vocal coach is Kelly Daniel-Decker. Choreography is by Christine Knoblauch-O’Neal, with assistance from Sam Gaitsch. Stage manager is Kaia Lyons, with assistance from Caroline Sullivan. Sarah Azizo is props master.

Tickets

“Urinetown” begins at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 20 and 21, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23. Performances continue the following weekend at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 27 and 28, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 29.

Performances take place in Edison Theatre, located in Mallinckrodt Center, 6465 Forsyth Blvd. Tickets are $20, or $15 for students, seniors and Washington University faculty and staff, and $10 for students. Tickets are available through the Edison Theatre Box Office.

For more information, call 314-935-6543.

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