Saturday , May 25 2024
Juan Castro and the company in 'Urinetown' at the Secret Theatre (photo by Steven Speliotis)
Juan Castro and the company in 'Urinetown' at the Secret Theatre (photo by Steven Speliotis)

Theater Review (NYC): ‘Urinetown’ at the Secret Theatre

Neither losing its longtime space in Long Island City nor enduring the pandemic shutdown has quashed the Secret Theatre. After first re-emerging in physical form with theater programs for children, Richard Mazda’s Queens brainchild is now back with its first adult musical. The company’s current off-off-Broadway revival of the early-2000s Broadway musical-comedy classic Urinetown re-establishes the Secret Theatre as one of the city’s great unsung havens for superb productions of fully staged plays and musicals on shoestring budgets.

New Theatre, Still Secret

The lobby of the new theater in Woodside is also a homey display of secondhand objects for sale – books on theater, kitsch, dishware, kitchen utensils and such. This creates a warm, welcoming feeling as you enter. The theater itself resembles the old digs, but in a smaller rectangle, with lengthwise seating along one of the longer sides.

Secret Theatre productions have always been scrappy, and Urinetown is no exception. But it’s exceptionally well staged, acted, sung, and (not least) danced. It’s a relatively big production that makes efficient use of a small space.

Mathew Harper (L) and the company in 'Urinetown' at the Secret Theatre (photo by Steven Speliotis)
Mathew Harper (L) and the company in ‘Urinetown’ at the Secret Theatre (photo by Steven Speliotis)

It also reminds us that despite ongoing gentrification, New York City remains a fissile epicenter of onstage talent itching to go all out in a good show. When Rayna Hickman (the Secret Theatre’s Parade) broke out in song in the early going as Penelope Pennywise, proprietor of a toilet facility in a poor part of town, my thought was, OK, I guess this is the singing thespian who’s going to steal the show. But as the others got their spotlight scenes and songs, it became clear that this cast rattled with talent through and through. And this is essentially an ensemble piece.

Juan Castro wields an expressive, burnished tenor and a seriocomic intensity in the hero role of Bobby Strong, the romantic lead and rebel leader of the downtrodden. In the show’s blatantly absurd story, city pols are in the pocket of the greedy, monopolistic firm Urine Good Company (with both the highs and lows of the show’s humor signaled in that pun). This outfit controls access to the public urination facilities that all citizens must use amid a chronic water shortage. Mathew Harper has a rubbery good time as sleazy company head Caldwell B. Cladwell.

Hope Floats

His daughter Hope evolves from an idealistic, sunshine-and-roses innocent into a forceful leader, played with wide-eyed, Barbie-style charm by Kathleen Raab. Raab’s softer singing voice is harder to hear than the other leads’, but has a Disney Princess shine, and her witty acting can fill the room just fine. (There’s no amplification.) Chris Worley’s gloriously hammy Officer Lockstock could have stepped out of a Gilbert and Sullivan show. Titan Carlman makes the most of a smaller role as his hyperemotional sidekick, and Layla Clarke is a hilariously in-your-face Little Sally.

Kathleen Raab and the company in 'Urinetown' at the Secret Theatre (photo by Steven Speliotis)
Kathleen Raab and the company in ‘Urinetown’ at the Secret Theatre (photo by Steven Speliotis)

The rest of the cast glows too, all in two or more roles. The whole company embodies Vanessa Fry’s energetic choreography with precision and boundless vigor, which is impressive given the witty, tricky music and lyrics and the fact that they’re playing to recorded tracks that leave no room for error. (Hope happily jerking along while tied to a chair with a production number whirling in front of her is just one of the many clever bits – physical, musical, and spoken-word – that director Jordan Schneider and the cast fill the show with.) Schneider deserves grand kudos for putting all these pieces together so nimbly, but couldn’t have done it without a correspondingly top-notch cast.

Well done all around, Secret Theatre, and welcome back. This Urinetown is a hoot and half. It runs through April 21 at the company’s new space, right off the No. 7 train in Woodside, Queens. Catch it now, before time flushes it away.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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