‘Urinetown’ spices up theater

Tongue-in-cheek satire adds unique edge to musical repertoire


Ira Zuckerman

The cast of “Urinetown” rehearses.

By Ira Zuckerman, Ballard HS, Seattle

Each year, at the turn of winter to spring, a special aura emanates out from the black box and through the freshman hallway. It constitutes the after-school atmosphere, seeping out like incense through the sounds of choral songs and the vibrations of choreographed dance.

Last year, the theater produced a traditionally aesthetic performance of “The Sound of Music,” as orthodox and inoffensive as musicals can get. The 2014 spring musical, “Urinetown,” will be “on the other end of the spectrum” according to theater director Shawn Riley.

“The musical itself is a satire on musicals,” Riley said. “It’s got a humor and irreverence… it’s going to be a very different thing.”

Written by Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis, “Urinetown” premiered off-Broadway in 2001, and has since gained a substantial legacy as one of the most acclaimed pieces of comedy and political satire in contemporary theater.

“Urinetown” takes place in a dystopia, where water is conserved to the point where toilet use costs money. The narrative takes place in the poorest of collective urinals, Amenity #9.

“Audiences are going to notice how outrageous it is. In the past, we’ve done very linear musicals, for the most part people feel what we expect them to feel. With “Urinetown,” they could be offended or they could laugh their heads off,” senior and leading actor Miles Erickson said. Erikson will be playing Bobby Strong, his first leading role in his four years with the production of spring musicals.

Not only is the substance of “Urinetown” ambitious, but the style is perhaps more so. “Urinetown’s being done in steampunk. I guess it’s kind of trendy,” Riley said.

Both the set design and the costumes are stylized with emphasis on metals and other industrial tropes.

With senior Maddie LeClair spending her first production as costume director, actors’ outfits will add a much more artistic and creative element.

“I have set rules, but for the most part actors can pick what they wear. A big part of steampunk is using found objects; you take things that are basically junk and you make them. I’ve taken apart clocks, used materials meant for couches and curtains, I feel like I’m creating very individual costumes,” LeClair said. “The sheer number of costumes is challenging.”

Many of the veteran actors often given leading roles like Erickson will be graduating next year, leaving newer generations to take the reins.

Freshman Diego Roberts-Buceta will be acting in his first stage production in “Urinetown.” “I’m having a lot of fun, it’s my first year doing choir too. It’s a lot of practice on my own time, but I think I’ll continue with it next year,” Roberts-Buceta said.


An incomplete steel scaffolding sits behind a group of students, who in one month’s time, will be actors. Choreographer Eia Waltzer stands up and begins to direct a group

It’s after school on the last day on first semester finals; the better part of the school has left to relax and celebrate making it halfway through the year. But the cast of “Urinetown” will be working on the dance number “Snuff that Girl” until almost 6 p.m.

“The show is very dance-heavy, it’s a challenge for kids who haven’t danced before. The musical is a satire on musicals itself, so it parodies many different styles. There’s Russian dance, there’s hoedown, it’s all over the map,” Riley said.

Riley does not face this challenge alone. Choreographer Eia Waltzer is conducting the dances of “Urinetown” for her first play with the production team.

“I mostly work for Kentridge and Nathan Hale. I’ve been doing choreography since I was eight and dancing since I was two.” Waltzer said.

As practice begins to pick up, a group of actors gathers around Waltzer hoping to get an idea of what they will be focusing on. At first glance, she could be a student; she’s casually dressed in a baggy hooded sweatshirt and yoga pants, but she commands a drill-sergeant-like respect rivaling that of the notoriously magisterial director himself.

Riley stands with his usual sturdy cross-armed poise and directs students with his usual sturdy demeanor. This is only for a brief moment, as he hands the next two hours of dance practice off to Waltzer.

“There’s so many different styles of dance… for people usually trained in classical, people might not know how to work with these completely different choreography schemes…but they’re all working super hard,” Waltzer said.

Even though it’s just a practice, the cast moves as a singular professional entity like they were performing for a sold-out auditorium. “Part of it is me, but the students are so good at watching each other. I’m only half of it,” Waltzer said.

Like a field marshal, she paces around the stage making changes as she sees fit: physically positioning actor’s arms for them, giving feedback on poses, and any other area students need help in. If Waltzer is the field marshal, that makes Riley the general, standing alert at the nadir of the stage, intervening only when necessary.

“Riley’s job and my job are very similar. I have to take his vision and move that into my dance, and he adapts to the way my dance becomes a part of the show,” Waltzer said.

A two minute break is all the cast gets in the two hours of intense dance practice. After practice is over, cast members have the choice to head home for the day, but most stay behind to get one-on-one time with Waltzer.

“There’s a fine line between having fun and learning. If they want to get the dances down, they listen to me,” Waltzer said, confident in her methods of teaching. “[It’s not like] working with pros, there I have to take my bossy-ness down a notch.”

Few would miss opportunities to learn from her, as they all have to understand a daunting load of complex dances. They sit in a circle, listening to the soundtrack of the musical, matching motion with sound cues.

Waltzer combats such a daunting complex of dances in “Urinetown” with techniques she has learned over a dynamic career of choreographing musicals. “I like to write things I notice down. Your body is trying to mix up signals with your brain, so making sure your brain understands exactly what it’s supposed to be doing is important,” Waltzer said.

“We’re very much on track even though my availability is limited,” Waltzer said. In January, she was only been able to work two times a week at most, with three other productions eating up her schedule. “[The cast members] really have drive and determination. People will, well, I want people to notice how hard they’ve all worked.”

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