Until 9 September
I returned to Doncaster Playhouse on Thursday night to attend Phoenix Theatre Company’s latest production, an adaptation of the Tony award winning satire, Urinetown. If you’re new to the theatre community or a novice when it comes to the topic, you would think that a show based around human waste would sound inconceivable but shortly after the turn of the millennium, this is exactly what Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis presented to the world in a critically acclaimed theatrical display. Plays and musicals portrayed in a satirical style tend to be very hit or miss as those who produce the spectacle can’t guarantee whether the target audience will get the overall message, find it funny or take a liking to the absurdist depictions of certain political views and characterisations. Urinetown is no exception and despite not having any particular prerequisites as far as casting is concerned, it is still a musical that I believe has to be done well or not at all and Phoenix managed to achieve the former for their second and final show of the 2023 season, still going strong after the loss of former company president Craig Maloney in May this year.
Picking up where Craig left off in the director’s chair was his daughter Renée Maloney, who had a resourceful and revolutionary creative vision that saw Urinetown’s dystopian future setting intertwined with political propaganda and notable figures in protest movements throughout history to cement the comical production’s overall message early on. Maloney also instilled the show’s values into her cast no matter what side of Urinetown’s political divide their characters found themselves on, assuring the audience that no performance would be the victim of overacting, no performer would be seen fishing for laughs and all portrayals would come naturally in order to improve the overall quality of the satire for all kinds of theatre patrons across Melbourne to enjoy. Coming along for the ride with her directorial efforts, Maloney demonstrated her choreographical talents in the production as well alongside fellow choreographer Natalie Krizmanic and together they created routines that novice dancers could easily adapt and shine to and experienced dancers could be raised high alongside them. Thanks to Maloney and Krizmanic’s input and guidance, every performer incorporated their character’s mannerisms and motives into their dance displays whether they were attacking the masses or leading the congregations with movement that inspires, resulting in a choreographic feat that was solid, occasionally silly but always sophisticated. In the pit behind the baton was musical director Simon D’Aquino, who took inspiration from both classical and contemporary vocal stylings to inform his vocal direction and he and his trusted band found an incredible balance between the complexity of their orchestrations and the prowess of their vocalists to create a visceral, visionary and victorious musical display that complimented the talents of everyone involved whether they were utilising their voice or playing an instrument.
Urinetown prides itself on being a musical where every character no matter how big or small has a name without fading into the background or falling into obscurity and in a cast of just fourteen people, they all reminded us of their purpose towards the production with a masterclass of character work for the ages. A bribed senator, an innocent victim, a grieving widow and mother, a dictator’s secretary and key figures in an uprising against power to expell waste for free in a decades long drought; these were all characters brought to life by James Ness, Josh Lee, Ally Denovan, Amber and Jade Biezen and Marina Wirubov. From Hot Blades Harry to Senator Fipp, from Old Man and Ma Strong to Tiny Tim, Soupy Sue and Little Becky Two Shoes, these six fine performers were all bright stars that brought the house down with their mastery, malice and motivation to showcase comedic gold to the fullest with heart and soul on display at every turn, which is key to showstopping performances that can stand the test of time. Leading the entire cast in this cautionary tale as the spectacle’s storytellers were two fine performers who have established themselves as a rising acting powerhouse in Melbourne’s amateur theatre circuit and an AACTA nominated actress who’s professional credits have crossed the globe and they are Alessio Russo and Jazi Hall who portrayed Officer Lockstock and Little Sally respectively. Despite their characters being on opposite ends of the political divide, Russo and Hall were a perfect pair acting as the human voices of reason between good and evil and together, they had a strong chemical bond similar to that of a father and daughter which made their narration all the richer. Russo was forceful and formidable and Hall was heralding and heartwarming in a collaboration that blended sweetly like peanut butter and jelly with characterisations that satisfied all senses.
Now we come to the romantic leads because what musical is complete without a love story and Urinetown’s comes in the form of Bobby Strong and Hope Cladwell who were portrayed by Ben Noble-Saroto and Kaela Raku respectively. Although Officer Lockstock said in the script that they had to fall in love because the show is a musical, the chemistry between the pair who follow their hearts to freedom and into each other’s arms was undeniable regardless of its unconventional development. Noble-Saroto had the combined spirit of a true fighter and a hopeless romantic in his proud and passionate portrayal of Bobby while Raku’s free and fiery portrayal of Hope could speak volumes to the world with her love for the common people and well, hope for the future and the love and trust both performers had for one another conquered all and made their impactful narrative all the more touching. Where there’s heroes however, there are also villains and they came in the form of Steven Edwards and and James Oorloff with their portrayals of Urine Good Company owner/founder/whatever Caldwell B. Cladwell and his main assistant and crony Mr. McQueen respectively. In satirical shows, redeeming qualities and human elements are usually nowhere to be seen in the main antagonists but we the audience quickly become enamoured with these foes as they’re characters we love to hate and Edwards and Oorloff took this on board in grand fashion to inform their portrayals of money hungry businessmen who will stop at nothing to keep rolling with the Benjamins and remain in power over the “bunnies” of the world. Edwards was reminiscent of classic villains like Lex Luthor and Mr. Burns but was unafraid to take inspiration from the American political system too in his crafty, conniving and calculating performance of Cladwell and Oorloff was reminiscent of lapdog sidekicks like LeFou, Dibs Plutzker and Waylon Smithers in his bold and boastful take of McQueen and when united, both actors soaked up every bit of disdain from the room for their characters’ despicability to form memorable villains in this year’s theatrical season.
The king and queen of Phoenix’s adaptation of Urinetown to me were two performers who were not portraying the first male or female leads but proved to be major leads in their own right with their skills in brilliance, consistency and theatricality and they were Jesse Hone in the role of Officer Barrel and Kelly Wild in the role of Penelope Pennywise. A full 180 to his performance as Drew Boley in SLAMS’ Rock Of Ages last year, Hone transformed into a sadistic psycho in his disconcerting and devious portrayal of a police officer under Lockstock and Cladwell’s command who gets a stimulating and borderline sexual thrill from their violent methods of brutality against the common people. However Hone was also able to show signs of humanity in Barrel on occasion to balance out his sociopathic nature and demonstrate that he is just as wacky and goofy as the rest of Urinetown’s inhabitants, especially in some of his final standout scenes; all this was a testament to what a versatile performer he truly is and it’s performances like these that continue to highlight what a great talent Hone is in our circle. As for Wild, her timeless and tantalizing portrayal of a public amenities warden who goes out of her way to enforce the law without mercy but sees the error of her ways after witnessing the injustices perpetrated by the company she once proudly represented saw an outstanding classical/contemporary style blend in both acting and singing that showcased her years of experience in the performance field. Wild would constantly stay in character whether she was delivering dialogue or lyrics doing for toothpicks in Urinetown what Marlon Brando did for cotton balls in The Godfather and this is an exceptional talent within itself but what I admired most of all, was her ability to make her take on Pennywise her very own without mimicking any of the Pennywises that came before her and with adaptations of Urinetown popping up left and right in our circuit over the years, it was a testament to what an amazing character actress Wild really is with originality like no other that makes a charismatic force to be reckoned with for years to come.
Phoenix continued the endless legacy that Craig Maloney left behind with their first production since the amateur circuit great’s death and restored my faith in the early 2000s musical staple that is Urinetown for many years ahead. The adaptation was an honourable one that instilled its message deep within the heart of all those in the stands and the sense of community that the freedom fighters of Urinetown possessed was evergreen just like the community aspect at Phoenix thrives on representing and now that their 2023 season is about to draw to a close, it only makes me anticipate even more what the company has to offer in 2024. Special shoutout to Renée Maloney, Steven Edwards, Jesse Hone and James Oorloff for their work on the production and to the rest of the cast and crew associated with Urinetown for an excellent almost sold out season so far. Congratulations Phoenix for another great milestone, chookas for the rest of your run freedom run and keep looking at the sky and seeing the river.
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