URINETOWN by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann, directed by John Rando, with David Keeley, Jennifer Waiser, Mary Ann McDonald, Stephen Patterson, Cara Leslie, Frank Moore, Steven Gallagher, Lee MacDougall and Patricia Zentilli. Presented by CanStage and Dancap at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front East). Opens tonight (Thursday, May 27) and runs to July 11, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2 pm and Wednesday 1:30 pm. $45-$85. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNNN
Usually an actor is thankful for a role, but Mary Ann McDonald wasn't so sure when she was offered a part in the Broadway hit Urinetown. "Something with a title like that just sounds so weird," she says, making a face to suggest that she's just smelled something rank. "I didn't know if I'd want to watch it, much less perform in it."
Now she admits that she was wrong. And so have lots of New Yorkers, critics and audiences, who've embraced the musical that began life as a 1999 Fringe piece before going on to a long run - and several awards - first off and then on Broadway.
The dark-toned show, which has its Canadian premiere tonight, offers a simple premise. In the near future, a lengthy drought has drastically reduced the availability of the earth's water. Big business has joined forces with government to cash in on the problem, requiring everyone to use public, pay-for-use lavatories to relieve themselves.
The situation is exacerbated when the poor, led by hero Bobby Strong, rebel against increased urinal fees. And wouldn't you know it, Bobby and the naive daughter of the corporation head fall in love.
But in this musical, love doesn't conquer all, and there's neither an easy nor a happy ending, despite the show's jokes and zany characters.
"I saw the show in New York soon after it opened on Broadway," recalls actor Steven Gallagher, whose musical credits include Top Gun: The Musical and You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown. "It wasn't long after 9/11, but the theatre was packed.
"The cast was the best ensemble I'd ever seen. As in the Toronto production, instead of musical-theatre types they'd hired actors who could sing, people who could give us nutty dancing, great singing and some fabulous characters."
McDonald and Gallagher both play employees of corporate villain Caldwell B. Cladwell, she the manager of the poorest, filthiest urinal in town and he a yes man who does Cladwell's morally dirty jobs.
One of the show's strengths is the blend of a serious message - what we're doing to the planet - with an eclectic musical score. You'll find some Kurt Weill cabaret tunes, a bit of gospel, a touch of West Side Story, a 30s Broadway feel-good melody and more.
"But while the homage is there, the score has its own distinct style," says McDonald, who's worked at CanStage in the Stephen Sondheim musicals Into The Woods, Passion and Sweeney Todd.
"It's intentionally twisted, an unusual blend of send-up and real feelings. I think its humour is very cartoonish, without any subtlety. It's as if we were all plunked down into an episode of The Simpsons.
"My son's going to love it," she laughs.
Neither actor has been in a show like Urinetown before.
"It's the most actor-driven musical piece I've ever done," continues Gallagher. "There are no special effects, and the only set is a big wall that we all turn. One side's the urinal and the other's the office of Urine Good Company.
"In the best sense," he smiles, "it's like being back in theatre school."