Maybe a baseball analogy will help us here. It’s hard to imagine hitting a home run when the count is no balls and two strikes, and you’ve already fouled off a few good pitches. “Urinetown: The Musical,” the latest production by MSU Department of Theatre, is staged on the always challenging, dungeon-like distances of the Wharton Center’s Pasant Theater, where actors on stage appear to be the size a thumb. (A booth near the door where one can rent binoculars hints at the ongoing problem.) This is not, and never has been, a great venue for live theater.
Musical director Dave Wendelberger’s dynamic five-piece orchestral combo was often undone by asleep-at-the-switch sound engineering. Add to that the shrill feedback of overmiked singers and actors — I observed more than one audience member covering their ears — and we’re already in a pretty deep hole.
Despite these structural problems, a cadre of very talented actors, singers and dancers managed to — excuse the expression — pull this production out of the toilet.
“Urinetown” is, at its core, a classic tale of an everyman fighting against the excesses of corporate greed. DJ Shafer, in the starring hero role of Bobby Strong, brings a powerful singing voice and muscular movements as he dances across the stage, reminiscent of the giants of a bygone musical era. He is joined in this effort by a trio of women with serious acting chops. Anna Birmingham, as Penelope Pennywise, belts out bombastically with great diction and pitch, while Hannah Martin, as Hope Cladwell, is the personification of great hope.
It is the third of this triumvirate, however, who steals the stage and keeps the audience laughing. Bethany Heinlein, as Little Sally, is Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail all wrapped up in a tiny package of energy and spastic animation. Her plaintive solo near the end of the show, “Tell Her I Love Her,” comes close to knocking the ball out of the park.
Director Brad Willcuts doubles as choreographer, setting crisp dance moves to the frenzied score.
Stylistically, “Urinetown” is campy, with heavy emphasis on comic exaggeration. This produces a lot of laughs but also detracts from the serious central notion of the play — that an absence of water might very well become one of the major outcomes of unaddressed climate change.
“Urinetown” MSU Department of Theatre
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 19-Thursday, April 20;
8 p.m. Friday, April 21;
2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, April 22;
2 p.m. Sunday, April 23
$22/$20 seniors and faculty/$17 students/$10 children
Pasant Theatre Wharton Center
750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com