Urine test 

Students at Thelma Gaylord Academy get pushed out of their comfort zones with Urinetown: The Musical.

The cast of Thelma Gaylord Academy’s production of Urinetown: The Musical rehearses. - NICHOLAS BARTELL / PROVIDED
  • Nicholas Bartell / provided
  • The cast of Thelma Gaylord Academy’s production of Urinetown: The Musical rehearses.

Urinetown: The Musical

May 3-5

Lyric at the Plaza
1727 NW 16th St. 

lyrictheatreokc.com
405-524-9312
$15

A local theater school is staging a production of dark satire Urinetown: The Musical with teenage actors, but don’t call Department of Human Services just yet.

“Surprisingly, there’s a lot less mature content to Urinetown than people think,” said Nicholas Bartell, director of secondary education at Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma’s Thelma Gaylord Academy. “I expected to have to tone a little bit more down, and I really couldn’t find what that would be. There’s the occasional ‘damn’ or ‘hell,’ but language-wise, it’s really not too bad. Other than that, it’s a bunch of pee-pee puns, and kids make those from ages 5 and up.”

Thelma Gaylord students ages 14-18 perform the Tony Award-winning musical May 3-5 at Lyric at the Plaza, 1727 NW 16th St. While Urinetown — which pits the poor and full-of-bladder against the sinister Urine Good Company in a dystopian future where water scarcity requires that everyone must pay to pee — is saturated with bathroom humor, Bartell said the musical is just provocative enough to be interesting to its teenage cast.

Urinetown has a fun edge to it while also being comedic, engaging and really challenging the students,” he said, “but not pushing the boundaries too hard to make any of our audience too uncomfortable because it’s a fine line to walk with kids. … We don’t want Mom, Dad or Grandma or Grandpa not paying attention to the show because they’re more concerned about the content that they’re seeing and whether or not their kid should be saying or doing that. That’s no fun. They don’t get to enjoy the hard work and the talent on stage if they’re busy questioning those things.”

In addition to a just-sharp-enough bite, Urinetown is a “tremendous ensemble piece,” Bartell said, which is useful for a theater academy trying to give as many of its students substantial roles as possible. The story, reportedly inspired by playwright Greg Kotis’ annoyance with the prevalence of pay toilets while on a low-budget European trip, centers on the rebellion of urinal maintenance man Bobby Strong (Briam Zuniga) against restroom magnate Caldwell B. Cladwell (Nicodemus Meade-Greenman) after Strong’s father is busted for public urination and sent off to the dreaded penal colony Urinetown, but Bartell said that supporting characters, such as Little Sally (Delaney Horton), Hot Blades Harry (Garrett Langley) and officers Lockstock (Logan Boyd) and Barrel (Jackson Murray), “really breathe life into the show.”

Satire scholars

One of the challenges Urinetown poses for young actors is its parodying of older musicals. Act two’s opening number “What Is Urinetown?” for example, is “very reflective” of Fiddler on the Roof, Bartell said, and choreographer Sheridan McMichael had the students watch a clip of “Cool” from West Side Story before they began rehearsing the spirited number “Snuff That Girl.”

“He thought it was important for them to see what that physicality looks like,” Bartell said, “the sharpness in the movement, the way the sound kind of fills their bodies as they move.”

The musical’s social satire, meanwhile, lampoons capitalism and corrupt politicians as well as idealism and environmental conservation, but like its bathroom humor, Bartell said, the mockery is never intended to be overly offensive.

“Nobody goes to Urinetown to get lectured about politics,” Bartell said, “but they do go to certainly have a little bit of a laugh at some of the things that we all think are just a bit absurd. … I always try to tell the kids our audiences are coming to have a good time. If they can think about something deeper than that or if they find some connections of their own, all of that’s great, but how can we entertain them with this really funny piece of theater? It should be just as fun to the people that get the political references and the musical theater references as those that don’t.”

from left Logan Boyd, Ermily Trnka and Jackson Murray rehearse a scene from Urinetown: The Musical. - NICHOLAS BARTELL / PROVIDED
  • Nicholas Bartell / provided
  • from left Logan Boyd, Ermily Trnka and Jackson Murray rehearse a scene from Urinetown: The Musical.

However, Urinetown’s satirical style can be difficult for some young actors to grasp initially.

“It’s big and it’s loud; it’s in-your-face,” Bartell said, “and I think that’s something for kids to work on because a lot of students — students of any age, whether they’re elementary school through college — they kind of get this idea of what good acting should look like. They don’t want to be too cheesy or too large or too big, and they work real hard in a lot of shows at portraying realistic, grounded characters. Then, all of a sudden, they get tossed a piece like this, where they really need to go big … and it’s a tricky habit to break. It really is. I mean, a lot of our students are wonderful performers. They’ve been doing a lot of great realism in their singing and performing, but this is stylistic, so you have to take a little bit of that rehearsal process to break some old habits of what might be considered great acting for a small stage or for drama or for TV or film. We say, ‘This has to be much, much bigger than that.’”

In casting the production, Bartell said he was looking for actors who were not afraid of “taking their limiter off.”

“We try and tell kids all the time, ‘It’s a lot easier for you to give me 150 percent big and let me pull that back than it is to try to give me 60 or 70 percent and have me try to push it forward.’ It’s always easier to rein kids in, sometimes, if they have lots of big energy, but it can be hard to get them to go huge because they’re still students. They don’t want to embarrass themselves sometimes or they want to be more restrained and mature, so in auditions, you’re definitely looking for performers that are already willing to go there and be big and loud and expressive. … I always tell students, ‘As the director, I’d rather you make a whole lot of choices and help me direct and guide your choices than have to try to make the choices for you or just tell you what I want.’

“You’re always looking for kids that have the instincts to make some great choices on their own that you can adjust, and at the same time, you’re not writing off the kids who can’t yet because it’s a class. You want to teach them to have the confidence to make the choices of their own as well, but when you’re looking at casting your principals, you’re definitely looking for some students that are already willing to make a choice — even if it’s not the right one — and let you help guide those a bit.”

Tickets are $15. Visit thelmagaylordacademy.com

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