Hayden Kharrazi as Bobby Strong. Photo by Nicole Thompson

Hayden Kharrazi as Bobby Strong. Photo by Nicole Thompson

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PV High’s “Urinetown” goes with the flow

Director (and Hermosa native) Nicole Thompson had challenges aplenty

One might have wagered that a musical called “Urinetown” would have a strike or two against it from the start, let alone little chance of reaching Broadway (and pulling in three Tony Awards). It’s a wager that would have been lost, and in fact the show has been embraced by high schools left and right. Currently it’s being tackled by the drama department of Palos Verdes High School, directed by long-time drama instructor Nicole Thompson.

This in itself would be of minimal interest in a non-plague year, except for the technical mastery involved for creating an ensemble production of 21 cast members who each performed their role separately before being edited in a manner where they all seem to be on stage together. A little more about that in a moment, but first let’s look at the work itself. Why “Urinetown,” and why is it relevant today, in 2021?

Pea soup, anyone?

“‘Urinetown’ is definitely not your traditional musical,” says director Thompson. “It’s a satire, and I love a good comedy; but it’s more important than that. Through humor, it forces us to look at ourselves and our society. Most importantly, it makes us think. That’s part of what theater is for, to get us to think.”

Urinetown The editing process. Photo by Nicole Thompson

The editing process. Photo by Nicole Thompson

The story and plot of “Urinetown” is a bit Orwellian, perhaps with a touch of “Bladerunner.” It takes place 20 years from now and there’s been a two-decade drought. This—and here, let me read part of the press release to you—“has forced corrupt city officials to come up with a unique way to conserve water: all private bathrooms are banned and the citizens must use public pay toilets regulated by a monopolistic company.” The penalty for not complying is harsh: those arrested are hauled off to Urinetown, a dubious place, clearly, since no one who goes in ever comes out. Later in the show there’s a custodian who leads a revolution. After all, you can only hold it in for so long, right?

Even so, anyone and probably everyone unfamiliar with the show will pause as soon as the title is mentioned. “People go, what is this about? Is it inappropriate with that title?” Thompson says. “And I laugh because it’s probably the cleanest show I’ve ever directed: It doesn’t have a sexual context, it doesn’t have (foul) language, it doesn’t have any drug or alcohol use. I’ve directed ‘Footloose’ a couple of times and (referring to “Grease” as well) those are way more inappropriate. And no one’s said anything about those. But really, in terms of content, it [addresses] real-life issues but not inappropriate issues.”

Thompson knows of what she speaks. “It was written in 2001, but I directed it in 2011, ten years after that—which was one of my favorite shows I’ve ever directed.”

Was that also at PV High?

“It was. Very different then because we were all on stage. So I don’t feel like I’m directing the same show. Of course every cast makes it so different, but this is as different as they can be.” She adds that her first encounter with “Urinetown” was when she saw it performed at Peninsula High, directed by Jim Bell. “I was just floored. It was so much fun and so well done, very inspiring. I said someday I’m gonna direct this show.”

“Urinetown” also pays homage to (or parodies) other musicals like “West Side Story” and “Les Misérables,” but more importantly it tips its hat to Brechtian theater of the late 1920s, early ‘30s, by breaking the fourth wall. Or, in this case, the virtual fourth wall. In other words, there’s a narrator who addresses the audience and characters who know they are actors in a play and don’t mind discussing the work with one another while they’re on stage. The idea is to make clear that theater isn’t real life (but is “real life” theater?) and we’re all participants in this performance together. Again, it’s a little less palpable in a streamed rendition, but the era of pandemic being what it is…

No mention is made of chamber pots or bushes in the park. And if there’s no water for a good flush or two then surely there’s no water for a shower before leaving home or after a workout at the gym.

“Urinetown,” Thompson continues, “uses theater to examine corporate control, corruption, environmental conservation, and the growing divide between the rich and the poor—so it has all these real issues that we’re still dealing with today,” and she names corporate greed as well as overpopulation and Thomas Malthus, who wagged his finger knowingly about all this back in 1798.

Greg Kotis, who wrote the book and co-wrote the lyrics (with Mark Hollmann, who also composed the music), probably wasn’t thinking about Malthus and the dangers of too many people on this planet when he found himself in Paris and needing to answer nature’s call—a call that was halted at a pay-to-play, or fee-to-pee, public restroom. During this 1995 trip Kotis was on a shoestring budget, and during one of his moments of extreme urgency “Urinetown” was conceived.

“It sounds so depressing,” Thompson adds, “but it’s a comedy; it’s not depressing.”

Read the full article here.