What A Relief!

Beck Center Has Another Go At Urinetown

In 1971, Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman unveiled their masterpiece Follies. It chronicled a group of fading show-biz luminaries gathering for a final reunion at a soon-to-be-demolished theater. Also in eerie attendance are the sequined ghosts of their youthful selves, performing melancholy musical pastiches from their former glory days. Ivy League student Frank Rich, destined to become The New York Times theater critic, wrote of the show in his school paper: "A large part of its fascination is that its creators are in essence presenting their own funeral."

In its second Beck Center production in four years, Urinetown takes a similar fascination and makes it even more morbid. It carries the embalming process one step further by turning the funeral into an adept, heartless postmortem of the musical form itself.

In the show - first introduced at the New York Fringe Festival - Greg Kotis acts as a bookwriting Dr. Frankenstein by stitching together a patchwork quilt from a century of musical theater bits and pieces, creating an aphrodisiac for jaded audiences of empty cynicism and antiseptic formaldehyde. In other words, it's a two-and-a-half-hour Forbidden Broadway sketch. Ostensibly, the piece is a Brechtian parable about the evils of capitalism, set in a dark, mythical land ruled by a giant corporation that forces its downtrodden citizens to pay a fee to urinate. The title refers to a Kafka-like place of execution where those who break the law go to get mercilessly offed.

Mark Hollmann's music and lyrics resemble a collegiate compendium of a host of song styles, commencing with Kurt Weill -style satire, veering into Leonard Bernstein dynamism and dipping into the Broadway folksiness of Jerry Bock - all of which is propelled by that Forbidden Broadway brand of winking self-mockery.

For the second time, Beck has given Urinetown a road-company competence, thanks to many returnees from the 2005 production. Especially important for an evening built on retrieving archetypal styles from a vaudevillian graveyard are the abilities of the choreographer: It's hard to imagine a more ideal choice than Martin Cespedes. Here, he has ample opportunity to exhibit his special talent for recreating period homages. For instance, he moves handily from vibrant reproductions of Michael Kidd's cartoon ballets (as exemplified in his Li'l Abner and Guys and Dolls creations), to the ecstasies of Jerome Robbins' Fiddler on the Roof circle dances and West Side Story jazzy romps.

Also fortunate is that Beck's ensemble is comprised of pros who specialize in three-dimensional realizations of the musical's Hirschfeld caricatures. Among the euphoric highs are Greg Violand's George M. Cohanian take on a capitalist monster, Matthew Wright's uncanny cross-pollination of Stan Laurel and Bette Davis as the narrator cop, Betsy Kahl's demonic Annie of a waif and Patrick Carroll's gay Hardy pining for his Laurel. At the first encounter, the show can be a treat. But as a repeat experience, it's reminiscent of that madcap cutup who insists on imitating Judy Garland at every party: The first time it's mildly amusing. By the second or third time, however, you're wondering, Where's the Wicked Witch when you really need her?

[email protected]


Through October 12

Beck Center

17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood