Saturday, July 16, 2022



Urinetown The Musical. 

Music and lyrics by Mark Hollman. Book and lyrics by Greg Kotis. Directed by Ylaria Rogers. Musical director Leisa Keen. Choreographer Annette Sharpe. Courtyard Studio. Heart Strings Theatre Company. Canberra Theatre Centre. July 15–23 2022. Bookings: www.canberratheatrecentre,

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins


The cast of Urinetown The Musical

For its debut production Heart Strings Theatre Company has certainly made a big splash. Which is saying something for a musical about drought, corruption, people power and the privilege to pee. The title may be awful but Ylaria Rogers’ production of Urinetown The Musical by Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis is awe full.  This is mainly due to the excellent cast and brilliant musical direction by Leisa Keen and her top rate band  of Keen on piano, Steve Richards on Drums and Duck Whistle, Ben Sutcliffe on Reeds and Phil White on Euphonium and Drum. Urinetown The Musical is intentionally derivative. From the opening chords of the overture, I feel as though I am listening to the opening brassy sound of The Threepenny Opera. Both Hollman and Kotis’s spoof and Ylaria’s direction are Brechtian in their approach. The4 set of ladders and scaffolding, manipulated by the cast evokes the steely spirit of rebellion that seeps into the will of the marginalized. Urinetown’s cruelly authoritarian police chief Lockstock (Karen Vickery) also doubles as the narrator, breaking the fourth wall and forecasting events in her address to the audience. Principal players in a musical that unabashedly takes the piss like the hero of the piece, Bobby Strong, (Joel Horwood), innocently naïve Little Sally (Natasha Vickery) and sweet love interest Hope Cladwell (Petronella van Tienen) all endear themselves to the audience and with Lockstock remind us that we are the spectators, placed in judgement on the actions and the motives of the characters.

Petronella van Tienen, Joe Dinn and Max Gambale

Urinetown The Musical poses a moral and ethical dilemma. For twenty years the town has succumbed to a chronic water shortage. The authorities have banned all private toilets and the townspeople have been forced to pay for use of public amenities controlled by evil corporation head Cal Cladwell (Max Gambale), who is in cahoots with Senator Fipp (Joe Dinn) The amenities are under the control of the intransigent controller of access, Pennywise (Deanna Farnell) and anybody who defies the corporation or breaks the rules risks being sent to  the mysterious and ominous Urinetown. It is a familiar theme, the eternal battle between good and evil, innocence and guilt, law and order and insidious corruption. It is a tale of revolution in which the love between Bobby and Hope teaches one to speak with the love within the heart. As well as its fire and brimstone, Urinetown serves up a fair dollop of schmalz. But that is all part of the parody, and Rogers’ splendid company plays it to perfection. Both derivative and eclectic, Hollman’s music pays allegiance to Weil, the haunting rhythms of jazz and the evangelical triumph of gospel. This is in no way derogatory.  Rogers and choreographer Annette Sharp immerse themselves in the spirit of the songs from Weimar (Urinetown) to the Fifties (Run Freedom Run) and the romantic ballads of the Sixties (Follow Your Heart).  Sharpe even throws in a mock Busby Berkely routine in a show designed to send up the familiar and lampoon the popular. And yet, under it all, this musical with the awful title and the satirical jabs harbours serious messages needing to be said as much as anyone needs to pee.

Karen Vickery as Lockstock. Natasha Vickery as Little Sally

Rogers has assembled a stellar company. A look at the bios reveals professionally trained actors and singers who embrace the roles with elan and gusto and a sharply defined, at times caricatured intelligence that reminds us that a satire is an ascerbic commentary on an often disturbing reality. The illustrious bios include graduates of NIDA, (Vickery), Masters in Musical Theatre from London(Farnell),Victorian College of the Arts, (Van Tienen), Western Australian Academy of the Arts, (Horwood and Natasha Vickery) Cruise ship professional, (Dinn) and Australian Institute of Music graduate (Katerina Smalley as Little Becky). These artists are joined by an experienced and strong ensemble in a production that strives for excellence and in the tradition of this town’s excellent reputation for well-staged musicals. Heart Strings’ premiere production on the Canberra stage releases a flood of talent and a deluge of entertainment that is sure to leave its audience awash with the joy of a fun night at the theatre.

Joel Horwood as Bobby Strong. Karen Vickery as Lockstock

 I understand that we live at a time of the miked musical. It serves two vital functions. The singers can be heard over the band and it lifts the hype-o-metre through the roof. It can have two fundamental failings. In a theatre as intimate as the Courtyard Studio I question whether miking the singers is and advantage. It can distort  both the natural vocal sound and the actor’s diction as well as stifling the nuance of Cladwell and Fipp’s corrupt dealings or Lockstock’s moment of guilty reflection. It is to the credit of Horwood and van Tienen that they are still able to endow Follow Your Heart with the charm and sweet sentiment that this song deserves. There are moments in this show when I would have liked to have listened to the unenhanced sound of excellent voices and unmiked characterization. None of this or the intentional gender bending hilarity of Dinn’s Ma Strong in an appallingly tacky dress  could sway spontaneous shouts of approval or rapturous applause as the cast sing the closing reprise of Urinetown.

Alexandra Pelvin as Pa Strong. Deanna Farnell as Pennywise

Joel Horwood as Bobby Strong

Hold on to your bladders. Heart String’s Urinetown The Musical is a showcase of the phenomenal  talent in this town with the promise of more to come from Canberra’s latest shining Musical Theatre star.

Photos by Jane Duong