- Urinetown, the Musical!
In 1989, musical theatre performers with disabilities created The Physically Handicapped Actors and Musical Artists League (PHAMALy), a Denverbased not-for-profit theatre, to establish a venue in which their disabilities would be treated as part of the given circumstances of the production process. Company members live with a wide range of disabilities: some are blind, for example, while others are of short stature, hard of hearing, use wheelchairs, or have conditions such as Parkinson's, cerebral palsy, or bipolar disorder. PHAMALy's entertaining, provocative productions educate audiences and the theatrical community about performers' capabilities, focus, and determination, as well as the creative uses to which disability can be put onstage.
PHAMALy's production of Kotis and Hollman's Urinetown, The Musical! aggressively confronted issues of difference by casting performers with physical and developmental disabilities. Artistic director Steve Wilson's clever production, mounted at the Denver Center's 550-seat Space Theatre from 27 July to 19 August 2007, drew enthusiastic audience response. Merged with surprising design elements, his tongue-in-cheek, if not always successful, direction created a deft, funny, and moving production characterized by capable, irreverent performances. Urinetown, about a drought-stricken society whose citizens must relieve themselves in corporate pay toilets or face banishment, was an excellent vehicle for these artists, who are known for ingeniously [End Page 278] reframing conditions that many producers might deem insurmountable. This production's in-your-face performance style, energy, and dark sense of humor destabilized disability—more often constructed as something to be hidden or spoken of in hushed, serious tones.
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The director effectively mined the play's humor and kept an appropriately fast pace throughout. Taking full advantage of the intimate, arena-style theatre, he surprised the audience by rapidly shifting focus between levels, even employing the grid as the rooftop from which the corrupt Officer Lock-stock, and his sidekick Barrel catapult hero Bobby Strong. One of Wilson's most intriguing uses of disability highlighted a central theme of the play: the blindness of the wealthy and powerful to the suffering of the disenfranchised. Wilson's casting of blind actors as the corporate drones of Urine Good Company, owner of the city's public toilets, proved an amusing intellectual concept, but the joke lacked adequate variety over the multiple scenes in which these characters appear. Wilson's decision to place blind performers in a synchronized chorus line during the song "Mr. Cladwell," for instance, was a laudably bold choice—we do not expect blind actors who are not necessarily trained dancers to venture into Rockette territory. However, the moment was undercut, not because the dancers could not see, but because the execution lacked the degree of precision expected from such choreography. Wilson admirably staged and executed the script's swift transitions, and the term "ensemble" acquired new meaning as performers took responsibility for helping one another enter, exit, and change position on the dimly lit stage. For example, a cast member in a wheelchair helped guide blind actors offstage: grasping the wheelchair's handles, they were led safely past open traps as the stage picture shifted.
Juliet Vila and Andrew Caldwell delivered engaging performances as Hope Cladwell and Bobby Strong. Vila, who is blind, is a gifted comedienne, with a sweet, clear soprano singing voice and an understanding of both Hope's love for Bobby and her seemingly inborn quest for power. She employed a gentle, singsong voice and a tentative smile to portray Hope as a naive supporter of Bobby and his revolution. After Bobby's death, she markedly changed her vocal and physical choices, employing a gruffer intonation and a maniacal grin, to reveal Hope as even more grasping and conniving than [End Page 279] her father. Caldwell, a likeable leading man, made Bobby strong, centered, and believable. Vila and Caldwell's interplay became particularly interesting where physical touch replaced eye...