Transferring to the Henry Miller Theatre on September 20, 2001, Urinetown was the first of those theater mutants that seemed to spring up spontaneously on- and off-Broadway in the wake of the attack on the Twin Towers -- followed by Topdog/Underdog, Homebody/Kabul, Bat Boy the Musical, and The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?
What continues to distinguish Urinetown from the others is how pointedly prophetic it has turned out to be. It was the only oddity among those I've listed that opened off-Broadway before 9/11, but that's really hair-splitting when you consider that all of these beautifully deformed scripts must have been completed before Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda redefined the New Millennium.
Even as it deconstructs American musicals and cynically satirizes their audience, Urinetown shows us a metropolis that has been seriously weakened and corrupted by ill-conceived reactions to a truly urgent global crisis. So the book by Greg Kotis hits us as so much more brilliant today than in those early post-9/11 days when images of Giuliani and Bush at Ground Zero were dancing in our heads.
Kudos, then, to UNC Charlotte for finally bringing this seminal anti-musical to town. Anita Tripathi Easterling's set design echoed the depressing look of the original Broadway production without aping the courtyard-style scaffolding that has become a theater clichÈ in the past decade. Master costumer Bob Croghan, our original Theaterperson of the Year back in 1987, still has the gift, going with wonderfully complementary Depression Era costumes.
James Vesce deftly cast and directed a mix of more than 30 student and faculty performers. Jonathan Caudill as Officer Lockstock perfectly grasped the straight-arrow starchiness of our raisoneur's answers to the eternally upbeat and inquisitive Little Sally, portrayed with a perfectly juvenile peskiness and pluck by Bettina Martin. Even if youngish Daniel Pietruszka seemed less than senatorial as Senator Fipp, he came off as plausibly in the pocket of convincingly grayed Ken Burrows as evil industrialist Caldwell B. Cladwell, master of the Urine Good Company urinal empire.
As the central couple, the revolutionary firebrand Bobby Strong and Caldwell's pure-hearted daughter Hope, A.J. Swanson and Caroline Clifton generated the proper alternating fervid-and-chaste current. Jay Marong as the martyred Old Man Strong ñ the man who couldn't pay to pee -- and Kelly Mizell-Ryan as adamantine gatekeeper Penelope Pennywise contributed glittering gems to the evening.
About the only visual element missing at Amenity #9 in the future Gotham was the loo itself where citizens queued up. Sonically, we weren't nearly as lucky. Each time we visited Mark Hollmann's musical score, nearly all the lyrics capsized beneath the six-piece band directed Randy Haldeman. With nuggets like "It's a Privilege to Pee" and "Don't Be the Bunny," we perceive the loss of the words as more than petty theft.
Students up in the light booth experimented briefly with audibility in Act 2, thought better of it, and reverted to the customary discomfort zone. Members of the complacent UNCC faculty missed an important reality check there. While the program has made substantial progress in bridging the gap between it and the nationally-respected program at UNC Greensboro, they are still far from closing the gulf.
With all our indigenous choirs in Charlotte supplying the tinder, word has spread around town like wildfire about Chanticleer, the all-male a capella group whose repertoire spans classical, folk, gospel, and a wellspring of new music they've commissioned themselves. Their latest visit to Belk Theater, produced by the Carolinas Concert Association, was more than the usual concert. It became something of a happening.
As lusty as the applause had been throughout the evening ñ wildest for one of the folk selections ("Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child") and the most humorous of the Josquin des Pres morsels ("El grillo") -- the outpouring of enthusiasm that greeted each of Chanticleer's encores was amazing. Then members of the Grammy Award-winning group went out to the lobby to sign CDs, no doubt further stoking the city's eagerness for future visitations.
There was much for Chanticleer to crow about aside from the Rossini-like "El gallo," distilled in a personable intro as meaning "I want to get paid!" The ancient Byrd and Palestrina selections were all very fine, and by intermission we had progressed to such moderns as Gustav Mahler, Samuel Barber, and folk arrangements by Steven Stucky.
Each selection usually brought a new permutation of the 12-member group, either in the fashion they were deployed onstage or which of the vocalists participated. Nearly all had a go at the dishy spoken intros. Nor were their harmonies limited to rumbling male sounds. Equally divided into soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone/bass categories, Chanticleer's blend remains high and surprisingly clear to those who haven't heard it.
Charlotteans falling into that group are no doubt dwindling rapidly after this latest Chanticleer visit -- and the after-concert dissemination of their vast catalogue of recordings.