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'Urinetown' takes the plunge onstage

by: SCOTT FRANKLIN - Members of the poor chorus in 'Urinetown' include, left, to right, Chelsea Stores, Emily Derby and James McKinney. “Urinetown,” the musical theater offering from Clackamas High School, is not your usual boy-meets-girl musical. How could it be, with the word urine in the title?

The musical is about a large corporation, Urine Good Company, that controls all the water and requires the poor of the town “to pay to pee,” said director Steve Knox.

Bobby Strong, one of the main characters, starts out working for Public Amenity No. 9, the poorest, filthiest urinal in town, but then he has a defining moment that causes him to lead a revolution, so that the poor no longer have to pay.

That is the plot, in a nutshell, but Knox noted there is so much more going on.

“It is about control, corruption, sustainability and conservation,” he said adding that there is even some self-referential, light-hearted humor about why “Urinetown” is a “horrible name for a musical.”

The biology and environmental science classes and teachers have been supportive of the play, Knox said, and one of the teachers even came up with the idea for the poster.

“It has a picture of a toilet plunger, with the phrase ‘Take the plunge — buy tickets,’ ” he said, noting that the plunger is often used as a symbol for the musical, which was a hit off and on New York’s Broadway from 2001 to 2004.

“Urinetown” is suitable for all ages, Knox added, as long as “parents don’t have a problem with kids hearing the word pee.”

Choosing ‘Urinetown’

Carrie Jo Vincent, CHS drama teacher and the producer of the musical, said everyone knew that the name of the show could be a bit “off putting,” but the plus factors of putting on “Urinetown” far outweighed any concerns about the title.

“We started talking last November about the needs of our kids, and we wanted to put onstage something with as broad a reach across the curriculum as we could manage. ‘Urinetown’ has a lot of issues concerning the sciences and politics and the ethics concerning the role of private companies in commodities like water,” she said.

Although the musical has a “massive impact across the curriculum,” the bottom line is that “Urinetown” is a “great piece of literature, with every comic device you can think of,” Vincent said.

“It has content you have to think deeply about, and there is a lot of learning about theater as protest and theater as social activism. It is a rich experience for the kids and is about deeper issues than pee,” she added.

She has been able to use the question of how you market a show like “Urinetown” as a teachable moment with her drama students, Vincent said, adding that all her students are using social media to build buzz for the musical.

Real-life experience

Two years ago, when Emily Derby went on a church mission trip to a village in Guatemala, she could not possibly have foreseen that her experience would prepare her for a role in “Urinetown.”

Derby, now a CHS junior, and other members of the Eastridge Church in Sunnyside, took hundreds of water filters to Pulay, Guatemala, to provide villagers with clean water.

“There was a problem with malnutrition, sanitation and hygiene, because they have horrible water. We had to teach them how to use the filters, which fit into a bucket, and how to maintain them. Water is so essential; it should be available to everyone and is so vital to life,” Derby said.

While she was in Guatemala, she realized that “we have so much. We can just go into the kitchen to get water. We can flush a toilet; they have to use buckets there. There are so many things we take for granted.”

In the musical, Derby is a member of the poor chorus, a group oppressed by the big corporation that controls access to water and bathroom facilities.

The poor people know they can be arrested for illegally using the toilets, but as “Urinetown” unfolds, the poor realize that the situation is even more dire than they thought, she said.

‘Interesting time

An “aha!” moment onstage occurs when Bobby Strong’s mother doesn’t have enough money to use Public Amenity No. 9, and Mrs. Pennywise, a custodian of the urinal, screams at her that it is the law that she must pay.

“Bobby says, ‘What if the law is wrong?’ and the poor chorus is shocked. We have been bred to believe that the company has the right to charge us, and then we realize that we are not less than other people,” Derby said.

At the end of the first act, the members of the poor chorus are on one side of the stage, and the rich chorus is on the other, and they are marching toward each other, each side screaming that they are right,” she said.

Comparisons to current events and the recent election are inevitable, she said, noting, “It is an interesting time to be doing a show like this — politics are messy.”

Derby added that audiences should come and see “Urinetown,” because “it makes you think. We don’t have to think about how clean our water is; it’s a privilege to live in a place where we don’t have to pay to pee.”

Fast Facts

Clackamas High School presents the satirical musical “Urinetown,” Nov. 15, 16 and 17 at 7 p.m. Tickets are available online at nclack.k12.or.us/clackhi. For group sales or further info, call the CHS bookkeeper’s office at 503-353-5806 during school hours.

“Urinetown” features music by Mark Hollmann, lyrics by Hollmann and Greg Kotis and book by Kotis.

More than 65 students are in the cast, and adding orchestra, crew and parent volunteers brings the total individual count to more than 150 participating in the production.  

Director Steve Knox and choreographer Michael Snider are joined this year by new music director Jonathan Quesenbery. Thyra Hartshorn returns as scenic and lighting designer, with costume designs by another new creative team member, Berl Dana’y. All are theatrical professionals, noted drama instructor Carrie Jo Vincent, who is producing the event.

The plot of “Urinetown”: Picture a town, anywhere in the United States, suffering through a 20-year drought. The water supply is diminishing. Those that have control of the water tell those that don’t, “You must pay to pee.” The contemporary social issues of corporate control, corruption, environmental conservation and the growing divide between rich and poor are presented with wickedly funny wit.




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