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Don't stop relieving Urinetown'

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UMaine School of Performing Arts presents satirical musical

ORONO What if it weren't free to pee?

From that seemingly absurd question springs 'Urinetown,' written by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman. The musical directed by Tom Mikotowicz - is being produced by the University Of Maine School Of Performing Arts. Performances are at Hauck Auditorium on the UMaine campus; the show runs through Feb. 28.

'Urinetown' tells the tale of a dystopian near-future in which a generation-long drought has led to complete control of all bathroom facilities by a ruthlessly tyrannical monolithic corporation. In short you have to pay to use the toilet. Hence, a massive divide between the ultra-wealthy and the poverty-stricken masses forced into a constant and desperate search for enough money simply to go to the bathroom. All those who break the rules are taken away to the mysterious Urinetown a place from which no one has ever returned.

It's also sharp-witted and clever, with a wealth of catchy songs and a whole lot of laughs. Seriously.

Bobby Strong (Nathan William Reeves) works at Public Amenity #9, one of the city's many pay toilet facilities. His boss is the harsh and demanding Penelope Pennywise (Hope Milne). Together, the two are tasked with making sure that everyone pays their fees before using the bathroom a task Bobby finds unbearable when he's forced to sit idly by as his father is taken away.

Meanwhile, in the offices of the Urine Good Company (UGC for short), corporate titan Caldwell B. Cladwell (Alan Estes) and his associates Senator Fipp (Noah Lovejoy) and Mr. McQueen (Julien Levitt) are plotting once again to find new ways of wringing more cash out of the pockets of the masses. Cladwell's daughter Hope (Isabella Etro) has returned from 'the most expensive college in the world' to work for her father and beginning her preparation to someday take over UGC.

A chance meeting between Bobby and Hope leads to big feelings feelings that may just be enough to help cross that divide between rich and poor and create a world of bathroom equality for all. Or they may not.

Through it all, Officer Lockstock (Forrest Tripp) a sardonic and self-aware policeman charged with bathroom law enforcement serves as our narrator, breaking the fourth wall in order to guide the audience on its journey. Alongside him throughout is the lovable street urchin Little Sally (Nellie Kelly), serving as a foil to Lockstock and generally representing the plight of the people.

Again this is a comedy. Despite subject matter and themes that could be charitably described as dark, 'Urinetown' manages to find ways to laugh at the absurd tragicomedy of their targets. Capitalism, corporate greed, civil liberties and inequality, Broadway musicals the show takes multiple swings at them all. Speaking truth to power through a camouflage of laughter has been a weapon of political theater since the beginning; 'Urinetown' is no different. The show is wildly funny, but that doesn't make its message any less significant. It's an ideal fit for academic theater programs, offering students the chance to make an audience laugh and think often at the same time.

This production certainly doesn't lack for quality performances. Reeves strikes the right notes as our idealistic hero, finding the sweet spot between taking the character seriously and making sure that the audience doesn't take him TOO seriously. It's an infectiously energetic performance. Etro's Hope is a perfect match, her wide-eyed naivet an ideal counterpoint to Reeves. One hesitates to use the term 'moxie,' but she's got it in abundance. The two share a great chemistry, particularly when they duet on 'Follow Your Heart.'

Estes is smug and sinister in all the right places, endowing his Mr. Cladwell with a sense of over the top, finger-steepling evil that borders on the Mr. Burns-ian. Milne hits Pennywise's money-hungry amorality hard, and she's got a great voice - her 'Privilege to Pee' is an early musical highlight. Meanwhile, Tripp and Kelly team up to provide the show with its comedic backbone; the duo is particularly dynamic in driving the story forward. Tripp gives Lockstock a low-key, almost old-fashioned tone; he, more than anyone, embodies the sarcastic spirit of the piece. The old-timey sass the Kelly carries through along with some deft comedic timing fits beautifully with Tripp's fustiness.

But there's plenty to see beyond those particular notables - the ensemble for this show is massive, with close to 40 taking the stage. It's a massive undertaking for any production team, but director Mikotowicz, musical director Ben McNaboe and choreographer Raymond Marc Dumont have done wonders in telling a rich and textured story. The characterizations are strong, the music is excellent and the movement is some of the best I've seen from a UMaine show in some time.

Of course, the show has plenty of demands in terms of production design as well. Dan Bilodeau's set captures the bleakness of the setting while also doing its part to land some laughs. Lighting designer Jonathan Spencer offers his usual excellence, his stylistic choices seamlessly elevating the proceedings. And Kevin Koski's costume design is spot-on as usual, bringing a sharp and interesting aesthetic to the stage.

Don't let the off-putting name fool you - 'Urinetown' is a fun, funny show that is both clever and cutting. The songs are hummable, the jokes all land and it is far smarter than the title might imply. It is also one of the more ambitious undertakings that we've seen from the School of Performing Arts and ultimately, one of the more successful.

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