Urinetown Floods CMU

Since its Broadway premiere in 2001, the musical Urinetown has received joyous reviews, astonished sold-out theaters worldwide, and gained a reputation as a modern masterpiece. It earned three Tony Awards, two Obie Awards, and three Outer Circle Critics’ Awards—but most of all, ensembles across America have performed it over 1000 times.

Urinetown and its original choreographer have come to CMU for a run of glory. It showcases the School of Drama at its very best, and presents an exuberant realization of the modern musical’s potential.

Carrafa and Cast

John Carrafa, who leads the ensemble in this enormous production, has worked on Urinetown since its very beginning. Carrafa, an alumnus of Bates College, wrote the original choreography used on Broadway and received a Tony Award nomination for his work. His choreography also features moves from the musical Into the Woods and scenes from films such as The Thomas Crown Affair, The Last Days of Disco, and recently, The Polar Express. On television, Carrafa also worked on the choreography of Sex and the City. Carrafa has collaborated with famed director Mark Brokaw for The Long Christmas Ride Home, James Lapine on Into the Woods and John Rando on Urine-town. In short, Carrafa knows show business, and he brought to CMU a deep knowledge of its details.

“CMU has a really strong reputation in New York,” said Carrafa, “and the actors proved themselves. I’ve treated them like pros.” Rehearsals for the musical went at a professional pace, and at times he wanted to know if he moved too quickly. The actors assured Carrafa that they just wanted it to keep coming.

To give the students an insider’s knowledge of the performing world, Carrafa would often tell the drama students about Broadway and the business they would enter soon. “John was very encouraging and helped to demystify Broadway for us a lot,” said Dan Amboyer, who played Officer Lockstock and is a senior musical theatre major.

Carrafa was known for asking the actors their own thoughts on their work before giving his own feedback during rehearsals. Even though this marks the first time Carrafa has directed Urinetown, students praised his methods and advice.

“He has a dance background, and it works,” said Rustin Davis, a senior production and technology management major and stage manager of this production. “He came in knowing exactly what he wanted and let his plan evolve.” Evolving this plan meant giving the students the liberty to try new things. Carrafa allowed the cast to experiment with the text and bring out a living, breathing play on stage and it proves dynamic and rewarding. Kate Cohen, production manager for Urinetown and senior production and technology management major, said that even for the stage design, “John let us start from scratch. He gave us a lot of freedom.”

Little Sally actress Marissa Lesch, a senior musical theater major, said, “John’s just been so good to us. It’s been so wonderful to work with him and be told that we were working at the same level as the professionals.... He came in with open arms and was so warm. He wanted this to be our creation and didn’t want to recreate what he’d already done. He’s just been so generous with his knowledge.”

Broadway Comes to CMU

With a director and a musical straight from the heart of Broadway, the Purnell performance of Urinetown follows the same basic routine as the New York performance. The School of Drama has put up a cast of 21, larger than that of the Broadway production. The dance numbers are larger and the stage busier for this run.

Further, Carrafa re-inserted some lines into the script not used before on stage. These small distinctions give this performance an easily recognizable personality.

On a larger scale, the Chosky theatre houses a more grand and convincing environment. Carrafa said that Broadway could never have hoped for such an amazing set. The lighting and stage truly do invite the audience to accept Urinetown’s world, and feel like a part of the show.

From the very moment you walk from the Purnell lobby into the Chosky theatre, you step onto the threshold of a world that transcends reality, and even throws you a bit off-balance.

As a musical makes its run through the Broadway world and into its nationwide tour, its characters can start to become stale and too easily recognizable. But many of CMU’s cast had not even seen a performance of the musical before they took the parts and adapted them to their visions.

They all have a fresh take on their roles, and what is played out on the stage works extremely well. The on-stage personalities are explosive. Carrafa identified this and praised his cast for it, in his own words: “They’re all so strong in finding their own takes.”

For instance, you will notice on stage a very lively and entertaining Officer Barrel, played by Joseph Byrd, a junior musical theater major. Byrd thought up some of Barrel’s quips and actions on the spot during rehearsals, giving his role a comedy that no one will repeat. Carrafa noted that all the actors have made the play their own, making this set of interpretations special. The style, subtleties, and charm of CMU’s Urinetown all scream that this, indeed, is a unique and peerless take on the refreshing musical. “I doubt that any production will be better than this one,” said Carrafa.

Comedy with a Kick

Urinetown will have you rolling with laughter, but the CMU cast tried very hard to understand the musical’s strong social overtones and express those, as well. In the process of preparing the musical, actors read through a packet of information on global resources and water management, themes that the musical comments on very heavily, potty-jokes aside. The musical’s somewhat dark ending provides bitter food for thought, and Davis agrees, “It hits the audience hard.”

Matthew Gardiner, senior directing major and assistant director of the CMU production, said, “If we just treated Urinetown as a big gag, the message wouldn’t go through, but I think comedy in particular is one of the strongest ways to get a social message across.... It will work its way in through the laughter.”

“Everyone knows that Urinetown is funny, but what we’re trying to say is, ‘If you waste and throw away what you have, you’re not going to have a world for very much longer,’” said Timothy Wilson, senior musical theatre major and Bobby Strong’s portrayer. “Urinetown is much more than humor. The comedy is endless, but the writers just slid the message in effectively. I think they [the audience] keep that message, no matter what.”

Wilson said, “John was adamant that it’s not about getting laughs … It’s about letting the audience experience who these people really are and experience their fascinating world.”

Walking out of the theater and out of Urinetown’s world, that message does at least stick in the back of the audience’s mind. The theme of unsustainable desire pervades the show and makes the audience begin to suspect the hopelessness of the situation. In a way, the musical acts as a call to action, but Urinetown has not incited some great revolution in favor of the environmentalists.

However, as “Hope Cladwell” actor and senior musical theatre major Johanna Brickey said, “Hopefully people will drive home and think about it and maybe change one little thing they do.… We could have a combined audience of about 2000; and if all of them will do that, that’s a lot of change.”

An Ensemble’s Final Bow

For all of these senior students, Urinetown marks one of the highest points of their college career. The collaborative work they did with their colleagues makes for an astonishing performance, and the ensemble’s strength comes as more than the sum of its parts. Never did these students communicate any major trouble that had come up, and for a team of over 50 creative minds, that shows an exemplary resilience.

The actors interviewed—Lesch, Brickey, Wilson, and Amboyer — said that the show came together at a rapid speed because of what Wilson called a “beautiful” collaboration. Their visions, along with the visions of Gardiner, Davis, Cohen, and the rest of the team, meshed with Carrafa’s so well that Urinetown flew onto the stage with amazing efficiency.

Obvious in Urinetown’s incredible performance is that confidence the cast has in each other. They sing and dance across the stage together with such uniformity, and their relationships seem genuine.

The love Wilson as Bobby and Brickey as Hope exchange bases itself in a strong personal bond that extends to real life, and it becomes so apparent in this and other situations that the actors truly are a family. For the eight musical theater majors, college culminates in these performances. Brickey said, “It’s really bittersweet. It’s good to have something like this after four years of working so hard, but at the same time you know it’s never going to be like this again.”