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Emerson Stage Not Holding Back With "Urinetown"

Renee Gros ’18 has been to Urinetown before.

She played Penelope Pennywise, the rigid matron of the nastiest urinal in town, in her high school’s staging of the musical. And from April 19 to 21, she’ll reprise her role in Emerson Stage’s production of Urinetown.

As 16-year-olds, everyone just thought it was hilarious to sing about peeing on stage, Gros said. This time, it’ll be a little different.  

“The training I’ve had at [Emerson] has served me, but also just maturing in terms of my worldview and becoming more aware of the political climate we live in and the environment in general,” Gros said. “I just think understanding the world and growing as a person who realizes how relevant the musical is makes it so much more fun to do.”

Urinetown, which debuted on Broadway in 2001, just days after 9/11, is a satirical comedy that skewers capitalism, populism, politics, and the legal system. In the world of the show, a 20-year drought has made private toilets untenable, and all bodily functions have been thrown at the mercy of megacorporation Urine Good Company. Those who refuse to pay and “pee for free” are sent to a penal colony—Urinetown. Revolution ensues.

Greg Kotis, who wrote Urinetown’s book and lyrics, came to Emerson Stage’s first read- and sing-through and talked to them about his intention for the show.

“The show requires a high level of commitment from the actors,” said Artist-in-Residence Diane DiCroce, who is directing. “In order for the material to resonate in terms of the satirical elements, it needs to be played very seriously.”

It might be a little easier to play it straight these days. When the musical was written, the idea that a nation could just run out of water seemed far-fetched, DiCroce said, but over the past 17 years, climate change has ensured that it’s not such a crazy idea.

“The water crisis is a very real thing now. Cape Town, until very recently, was set to run out of water in July,” she said.

DiCroce was no stranger to Urinetown either when she agreed to direct. She saw it for the first time off-Broadway in 2001, and “absolutely fell in love with the show. There was nothing like it on or off-Broadway when it debuted.”

Years later, DiCroce performed in the show with Greenbriar Valley Theatre, the state theater of West Virginia (she also played Penelope Pennywise). She called it “a gift” to be able to experience the “breadth and depth” of the production.

Just as Urinetown takes swings at our biggest institutions, it also gets cheeky with the conventions of musical theater itself, incorporating big glitzy dance numbers and borrowing myriad musical theater styles from throughout the 20th century.  

Zach Holden ’18 plays Bobby Strong, a UGC employee who turns against the regime when it attacks those he loves. “He’s just a guy trying to do the right thing,” Holden said.

Some of the songs in the show are funky, some are jazzy, there are traditional show tunes, and a big gospel number, Holden said.

“It’s fun, as an actor, going through all the different styles while staying in this one world of the show,” he said.

Gros, a/k/a Penelope Pennywise, said she’s curious about what audiences who have never seen Urinetown are going to think. She said she hopes they come with open minds, ready to have fun.

“You might leave and be thinking about more things than you thought you would be,” Gros said, “because I think it’s super relevant to the climate we live in, politically, industrially, and environmentally.”

Urinetown runs Thursday, April 19, through Saturday, April 21, at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. For tickets and show times, visit emersontheatres.org.

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