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University of Maine SPA brings ‘Urinetown,’ political commentary, to Hauck Auditorium

The cast of "Urinetown" practices in Hauck Auditorium. The musical takes the stage Feb. 19-28. Photo by Ian Ligget.
The cast of “Urinetown” practices in Hauck Auditorium. The musical takes the stage Feb. 19-28. Photo by Ian Ligget.

“Urinetown,” a popular political musical with urine-related comedic relief, premiers next week in Hauck Auditorium. Staffed by about 65 students and produced by the University of Maine School of Performing Arts (SPA), “Urinetown” will have seven performances, six of which will be open to the public.

“Urinetown” was the first Broadway show to open after Sept. 11, 2001, and with its politically charged commentary, it made waves. During its two-and-a-half year run at the Henry Miller’s Theatre on Broadway in New York City, “Urinetown” won three Tony Awards, three Outer Critic’s Circle Awards, two Lucille Lortel Awards and two Obie Awards.

Director Tom Mikotowicz, a professor of theatre in the SPA, selected this year’s musical carefully.

“I landed on ‘Urinetown’ because I knew it would be the best educational experience for our students. That is always the deciding factor when I pick a show,” Mikotowicz said. “There was a healthy balance of female and male roles for our acting students, challenging design requirements for technical students, great music for our performers and orchestra, unique satirical dance numbers, and through-provoking material.”

Mikotowicz said he also picked “Urinetown” because it was funny.

“I am sure the audiences will love the show when they see it,” Mikotowicz said.

Actress Michelle Bassis, a zoology student who plays Little Becky Two-Shoes, agrees.

“I feel like everyone is gonna like it no matter what, because it’s cloaked in a lot of really good humor, but once you start looking into it, it’s just like ‘oh, they really are saying something against … monopolizing over natural resources.’ But at first glance it’s like ‘oh, that’s a funny pee joke.’”

And with a name like “Urinetown,” the satire speaks for itself.

“‘Urinetown’ presents a deft weaving of social critique, humorous repartees, and subversive commentary on the glorious shortcomings of political idealism and romantic love,” Dr. Carla Billitteri, dramaturg and associate English professor, said in her note for the program. “The play tackles with bracing directness the all-too actual themes of capitalist greed, political corruption, fatal ecological disasters, vertiginous social disparity, and violent social revolt.”

Essentially, “Urinetown” is a dystopian society. Rocked by two decades of devastating drought, the government ordered a ban on private toilets, forcing its citizens to pay for the “privilege to pee.”

“I’ve always felt that it’s very smart … But it plays to anyone, like, it’s funny to anyone,” Ben McNaboe, graduate student and music director for “Urinetown,” said. “There’s a lot of humor, too, that’s very intelligent humor, which is also kind of fun to do with a university cast in a university setting. But that’s not to say that things go over peoples’ heads … it’s very accessible.”

In the midst of all of the political talk leading up to the upcoming presidential election, “Urinetown” provides a fresh perspective for prevalent issues in today’s society.

“‘Urinetown’ portends an ominous future for a world that ‘burns’ through its natural resources with little regard for conservation and preventing devastating pollution,” Mikotowicz stated in his director’s note for the program. “Not coincidentally, these are themes that seem to be playing out in recent news.”

Examples include California’s severe drought, Gov. Chris Christie’s bill signing to privatize New Jersey’s water supply, all the way to the current water contamination crisis in Flint, Mich.

It is not surprising, with nods to current events and political commentary, that “Urinetown” is considered an educational musical.

UMaine’s production of “Urinetown” is included in a Socialist and Marxist Studies Series this spring. It is part of the Controversy Series that meets on Thursdays in the Bangor Room of the Memorial Union. A panel discussion on the musical will take place on Feb. 25 from 12:30 p.m. to 1:45 p.m., and will be lead by Mikotowicz, Billitteri and one undergraduate performer. On the same day, there is a 10 a.m. showing of the musical, to which area high schools have been invited. Both of these events are free and open to students with a MaineCard.

It is also being included as a performance event for the Honors course, “A Cultural Odyssey,” which is facilitated by Dr. Mimi Killinger.

Mikotowicz prides himself on the educational value that “Urinetown” holds for its viewers, performers and technical crew.

“We do presentations along with it [“Urinetown”], because it’s an educational experience. It’s not like we’re just a community theatre doing a fun show. It is a fun show, but it has a lot of political undercurrents … there’s elements to the work … it really challenges the cast.”

The SPA even hired a guest choreographer and a guest lighting designer for the show.

“It’s good for students to have that exposure on the directorial [board],” McNaboe added. “It’s uncommon that we bring a guest artist on the directorial … but it’s really good to bring [them] in.”

Guest Choreographer, Ray Dumont, has previously worked with UMaine students in a master class.

“I think he [Dumont] kind of fell in love with the energy of our students here, and their willingness to just kind of do anything that he asked them to do, which is hard to come by in the higher caliber conservatories … They’re just very, very teachable,” McNaboe said.

Students are only able to have this educational experience once a year, though, as the SPA puts on one musical each year.

“We are thinking about developing curriculum that goes more in that direction [toward musical theatre],” Mikotowicz said. “There’s an absolutely strong interest in musical theatre among our students. We also know that, for potential students, this would be a very attractive program.”

As of right now, the university does not offer a bachelor’s degree in musical theatre, and only offers a minor in dance. This does not discourage students like Bassis, however, who are soaking up the experience while they can.

“The whole cast really appreciates it. They [the directorial board] have been helping us get better at what we do, which is really nice,” Bassis said.

McNaboe agrees.

“I think the cast is really, really strong, and I think they’re having a ton of fun, which is always ideal,” McNaboe said.

“Urinetown,” will be performed in Hauck Auditorium on Feb. 19 and 20 at 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 21 at 2 p.m.; Feb. 25 at 10 a.m.; Feb. 26 and 27 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 28 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15, or free with a student MaineCard.

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