OnStage Atlanta has had a long but turbulent life since its founding in 1971. The small theater company has undergone numerous changes in leadership and venue, but the 2001 debut of its permanent playhouse in Decatur offered one promising sign of stability. Another followed earlier this year with the addition of actress and director Barbara Cole Uterhardt as its first artistic company manager.
The company's remount of Urinetown: The Musical suggests that OnStage Atlanta's tide is still rising. In 2006, Greg Poulos directed a perfectly enjoyable version of Mark Hollman's and Greg Kotis' caustic musical satire, but the company's latest incarnation of Urinetown, directed by Uterhardt, noticeably improves on the previous show.
Urinetown depicts a big, unnamed city suffering from a water shortage so severe, the unwashed masses have to pay for the "Privilege to Pee," as one early number explains. Star-crossed lovers Hope Cladwell (Sims Lamason) and Bobby Strong (Clint Pridgeon) resolve to fight the system in the play's jaundiced but hilarious parody of capitalist abuses and revolutionary movements. (No pun intended.) Pridgeon and returning player Lamason capture their roles' twinkling naïveté but have powerhouse singing voices. Geoff "Googie" Uterhardt (the director's spouse) brings his trademark madcap energy to the sunny but sinister role of the show's narrator, Officer Lockstock.
As a director, Uterhardt shows a confident sense of Urinetown's proper tone without taxing the small theater's resources. Hollman and Kotis offset the material's deep cynicism with joyous musical numbers that tweak the likes of Oliver!, West Side Story and especially Les Miserables. The production nods to Urinetown's melodramatic roots by evoking the shtick and physical comedy of vintage comedy teams. Robert Wayne, reprising his scene-stealing role as the plutocratic Caldwell B. Cladwell, comes across like an evil Ollie Hardy. The show's crowd control and set design suggest the kind of old-fashioned comic strips that crammed shabby characters and scruffy details into every corner of the frame.
Occasionally the bit players camp it up a little too much, and the second act's comic timing isn't quite as snappy as act one's. Still, OnStage Atlanta's repeat visit to Urinetown finds even more wicked delights in one of the most pessimistic yet cheerful musicals of its time. The playhouse must be flush with pride.