THEATER REVIEW: Acting buoys ‘Urinetown’

Urinetown, the Musical/ Ghent Playhouse

GHENT PLAYHOUSE HAS ADDED a new star to its roster. It is Eleah Peal, who appears as Little Sally in Ghent’s production of “Urinetown, the Musical.” Of course, her character has the best lines, but even so, whether Peal is center stage or buried in the mob, this actress is constantly interesting, original, quirky and honest.

Direction by newcomer Sky Vogel is crisp and clear. Choreographer Jimmy Robertson has caused dancing such as we have not seen on this stage before, nicely assembled and performed with a sharpness difficult to achieve in community theater. Kudos to choreographer Robertson and to dance captain ChristineLee Mackerer.

The fun of interpolating a Fiddler on the Roof step here, a Sweeney Todd staging there, seemed at first to be a great gimmick. (The only use of it that didn’t land was the kicking chorus line–a device too banal even to survive in parody.) I was hoping that the basic conceit was original with Vogel and Roberts, but the device is apparently one of many borrowings and part and parcel of the original.

In addition to Eleah Peal, there is some very nice casting. Mike Meier is Bobby Strong. He is strong of voice and body, delivering the authors’ less-than-wonderful parody with his accustomed directness, singing the songs with ease and thrilling high notes.

Seeing Mark “Monk” Schane-Lydon move from a delightful Snoopy in Charlie Brown to this cop/narrator (physically military, delivering all the lines so Bogart-straight that the humor explodes beyond all its basic meaning) is to appreciate his comic range. He is a major pleasure.

The beautiful Amy Fiebke seems to be trying to transition into character parts with the role of Miss Pennywise. It’s probably too soon; but she makes the most of a not-very-interesting character. (If she doesn’t take care, however, pushing the chest voice that hard will surely lead to a Liza Minelli wobble.)

Kathy Wohlfeld, with Meier, brings us a 15-second scene in Act Two that is one of the most satisfying of the show, even though it was not meant to be.

Kaitlin Pearson has a great ingénue look, but she needs to borrow some of Meier’s directness. She doesn’t have to do the parody. It’s already in the dialogue.

Tony Pallone really understands this style, and Zack Marshall slithers smoothly across the stage, sings a phrase, or says a line that suggests a traditional if rare phenomenon: the “triple threat,” singer/dancer/actor.

The excellent lighting in the opening and other effects by Grace Fay and Bill Camp are noteworthy. Some of the fantastical bits seem to need something extra, but it is gratifying to watch the growth of designer Fay from assignment to assignment.

Joanne Maurer’s costumes are especially character-enhancing in this production, and sets by Bill Visscher and Tom Detwiler feel right.

The concept of this show should work, but we are forced to settle for a number of good performances. Unfortunately, it comes across as hipsterism-for-high-schoolers, post-modernism-for-the-slow-of-fashion. It is a snotty, misanthropic comic strip when it intends to be just terribly, terribly clever. A plethora of minor keys or a smattering of out-of-the-key melody notes makes one neither Kurt Weill nor a good parody of same. One can’t satirize long speechifying simply with long speechifying. (Yes, we got it! We got it!) Making a song called “Follow Your Heart” is not a hip comment on Brigadoon, Finian’s Rainbow or The Fantasticks. It is a childish attempt to smear your betters.

Consistently unearthing class-A material to perform is an extremely challenging task for any theater company, and it may be unfair to address, in the same essay, the basic theater piece with the work of actors and directors; but reviewing seems to require it. To start, one must concede that, while good performing is difficult, it is not nearly as difficult as writing a good play or musical.

In the “Urinetown” piece, Schane-Lydon’s dialogue keeps reminding the audience that there is a musical going on, which points up the excuse for slamming a tradition and avoiding the necessity of writing really good material. Dear authors, must you pummel us with your device? And don’t worry, we are not in danger of being drawn into your deliberately dumb story.

As I heard someone in the lobby say: It’s enough to make you long for a musical.

The show runs through February 5. Visit the web site: www.ghentplayhouse.org. Reserve tickets at 518 392-6264.

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