11/13/2014 12:08 EST | Updated 01/12/2015 05:59 EST

Vancouver's 'Urinetown: The Musical' Overflows With Talent


Chris Lam, Rosie Simon, Meghan Gardiner, and Anton Lipovetsky in "Urinetown: The Musical" (Photo credit: David Cooper)

"Urintetown" is the 2001 Broadway musical that just opened in a production at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver. You have to pay to use a lavatory in Urinetown. That's the situation for the poor. Water has grown scarce (we're told) and the evil corporation, Urine Good Company, controls all the public lavatories. The toilets are staffed by clerks who take the pennies from the poor. Outrageous!

If this sounds like a Saturday Night Live sketch you'd be right. A revolutionary toilet assistant leads a rebellion to defeat the bad guy. End of sketch. But Urinetown stretches over two hours, and the story is stretched beyond endurance. A Broadway hit (Tony for Best Musical, three-year run), "Urinetown" survives on the strength of its score. The first act is mostly boring and the second act bears a couple of holes. Still, music is upbeat, and mostly pastiche of the music from other musicals, especially the revolutionary music of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. Some very good performers present the score, and those performances are saviours. The chorus is good.

Director Donna Spencer does an admirable job. She has a small performance space but uses a clever two-tiered set (by Ted Roberts) that gives her maximum floor space for the often-clever choreography (though repetitive) by Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg. The choreography, designed mainly for non-dancers (though the cast features a couple of ringers), keeps some humour alive.

The show's musical star is Meghan Gardiner as toilet manager, Pennywise. She adds to the over-abundant exposition with the exuberant "It's a Privilege to Pee." She has the stage personality of a young Patti Lupone and lungs that grab and hold us. Glib and cynical, she's very funny and quickly becomes one of our favourite characters.

David Adams is very good as the narrator who speaks directly to the audience. He is also a cop with a role in the action. His demeanour as narrator is friendly, even jovial. His narration is joined by Tracey Power as Little Sally who asks him innocent questions about the musical itself. She is dismayed at the (spoiler alert) sad ending. He points out he never promised a happy one. This tag team works very well and is another highlight of the show.

The romantic leads (Michelle Bardach and Anton Lipovetsky) are stuck with a budding relationship that is superficial. It never develops beyond an early meeting where the two sing a song that is a single joke stretched far too far, "Follow Your Heart." It's also one of the points where lyricist Mark Hollmann reveals weakness. If it's essential to the story, it is not essential to our entertainment. Other duds include all the songs written for Cladwell (Andrew Wheeler), and the second act chorus number, "Snuff that Girl." Wheeler, by the way, is stiff as the show's evil genius.

Bardach and Lipovetsky sing an uneven duet. While Bardach's voice is almost always strong and note-perfect, Lipovetsky struggles on occasion, even on those notes he must hold for several beats. Still, he can really sell a song as he can sell a character. He's well cast as the show's lead. An uninhibited performance features endless creativity. If any performer (other than Adams) truly grasps the satirical edge of the play, it's Lipovitsky. His takes to the audience, his face that twists when he remembers his dad, his swoon at sighting Hope, are all correct for Donna Spencer's concept. Those who recall his summer performances in two Bard on the Beach shows will not be surprised to see such a fine piece of work here.

The holes? The kidnapping of Hope is the most baffling and confusing plot element. Why does Bobby trust Cladwell enough to risk his life meeting with him? And our constant question: is there really a water shortage? Given Cladwell's evil, it is an obvious question the answer to which is left way too late. And the show's ending, like many SNL sketches, feels like a quick add-on that just disappoints.

"Urinetown: The Musical" runs until Nov 29, 2014 at the Firehall Arts Centre.