By Lynn Venhaus

Zeitgiest, meet “Urinetown.”

In this Twilight Zone reality we seem to live in now in the 21st century, the subversive “Urinetown” the musical has never seemed timelier. Or funnier. Or scarier.

What once was merely laugh-out-loud outrageous 20 years ago has morphed into a gasp-filled hit-nail-on-head satire where sleazebag politicians are even slimier, greedy corporate bastards are more cruel, ecological disaster seems more imminent and cries of revolution are not far-fetched but absolutely necessary.

This wicked musical comedy composed by Fairview Heights, Ill., native Mark Hollmann, with co-lyricist and book writer Greg Kotis, appears to grow more relevant as the gap continues to widen between the haves and have nots.

Resurrecting one of its past triumphs, from 2007, for the cross-your-fingers 30th season, New Line Theatre’s savvy choice allows a confident, polished ensemble to have fun romping through the ripe-for-parody American legal system, ridiculous bureaucracy, corrupt municipal politics, and foolish mismanagement of natural resources.

The time is 2027 and the focus is urination. Yes, that indispensable body function. But, because we’re in a near dystopian future, there is no such thing as a free pee – and we can’t squander flushes and there is a limited water supply.

If you gotta go, it will cost you. A severe 20-year drought has resulted in the government banning private toilets. Citizens must use public amenities that are regulated by a single evil company that profits from charging a fee to conduct one of humanity’s basic needs.

So, what happens if you disobey? You are punished by a trip to Urinetown, never to return. Egads!

A rabble-rouser emerges – Bobby Strong, and he launches a People’s Revolution for the right to pee. Let’s hear it for urinary freedom! As he does with every role, energetic Kevin Corpuz is passionate in his hero’s journey.

This cast has the vocal chops to entertain in lively fashion, and with nimble comic timing, hits the sweet spot between exaggerated naivete and cheeky irreverence. Jennelle Gilreath, effectively using a Betty Boop-Shirley Temple voice, is the child-like street urchin Little Sally.

Bobby leads the poor rebels – performed by local live wires Grace Langford as pregnant Little Becky Two Shoes, Ian McCreary as Tiny Tom, Chris Moore ss Billy Boy Bill, Christopher Strawhun as Robbie the Stockfish and Jessica Winningham as Soupy Sue.

They are part of a first-rate ensemble in such crisply staged musical numbers as “It’s a Privilege to Pee,” “Snuff That Girl,” “Run Freedom Run,” and “We’re Not Sorry.”

Not only do Hollmann and Kotis take on capitalism, social injustice and climate crisis, but also cleverly twist the great American musical art form itself, with resemblance to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “The Threepenny Opera” and the populist champ “Les Miserables.”

With silly characters modeled after old-timely melodramas, Kent Coffel is Officer Lockstock, Marshall Jennings is Officer Barrel, and Sarah Gene Dowling is tough urinal warden Penelope Pennywise, all having fun with their goofy over-the-top roles.

Kent Coffel, Marshall Jennings as Officers Lockstock and Barrel. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg

Bobby’s downtrodden parents, Joseph and Josephine Strong, are played by solid veterans Mara Bollini and Zachary Allen Farmer, also doubling as rebels, while fellow New Line regulars Todd Schaefer is the dastardly profiteer Caldwell P. Cladwell and Melissa Felps his darling daughter, Hope, who falls in love with Bobby. Both Schaefer and Felps play it straight, although they are winking to the audience the whole time as the heads of Urine Good Company, aka UGC.

Corpuz and Felps soar in “Follow Your Heart” while Bobby’s “Look to the Sky” and Hope’s finale “I See a River” showcase their skills.

Playing a caricature of an oily grifter and elected official Senator Fipp is Colin Dowd, doing his best Matt Gaetz impersonation, and Clayton Humburg is weaselly as Cladwell’s assistant Mr. McQueen. The “Rich” folk have fun with “Don’t Be the Bunny,”

Co-directors Scott Miller and Chris Kernan’s fresh take goes darker, which suits the capricious winds of an ever-evolving global pandemic that we have lived through for 27 months. Not to mention clinging to a democracy with fascist and authoritarian threats very much present. And hello, global warming.

Kernan’s choreography is a highlight, and music director Tim Clark keeps the tempo brisk. He conducts a tight band of Kelly Austermann on reeds, Tom Hanson on trombone, Clancy Newell on percussion and John Gerdes on bass while he plays keyboard.

The upside-down world we’re in is enhanced by Todd Schaefer’s grimy set, Sarah Porter’s astute costume design, Ryan Day’s sound design Kimi Short’s props,  and Kenneth Zinkl’s lighting design.

After an off-Broadway run, “Urinetown” opened on Broadway in 2001 and was nominated for nine Tony Awards, winning for best book, best music score and best direction. The fact that it’s stature has grown over the years is a reflection of our current time – and while that is rather frightening, this show continues to say something worth saying through its devilish use of heightened reality.

It’s holding up a mirror, even though it’s presented in a funhouse way, and that is indeed admirable.

In that spirit, leave your paranoia behind and get ready to laugh at the zingers launched with glee. New Line Theatre’s “Urinetown” is worth a sojourn as time keeps on slipping into the future.

New Line Theatre presents “Urinetown” June 2-25, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Marcelle Theatre. For tickets or more information, visit ww.newlinetheatre.com

Photos by Jill Ritter Lindberg

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor

Every generation has a musical that captures the zeitgeist
of the moment, that speaks to them in a special way. My generation of Baby
Boomers had “Hair,” Gen X had “Rent,” Millennials had “Spring Awakening” and
now Generation Z has the current cultural sensation “Be More Chill.” It’s
fierce, fun and frisky.

This is not just another teen misfit story, although it taps into familiar themes, bearing some resemblance to “Mean Girls,” Dear Evan Hansen” and “Heathers.”

With more dimensions than stock characters, the kids work
through messy life things – and as an adult, you just want to tell them “It
gets better,” but then we’d have no story conflicts, would we? It’s set in
suburban New Jersey and the time is now.

Is it ever. You’ll identify right away, as the dialogue is
a contemporary bulls-eye.
Besides being incredibly clever, another aspect that sets this realistic cautionary
tale apart is its sci-fi framework. To understand just what a big-bang this musical
clearly is, look at how it has tapped into a youthful energy that’s contagious,
no matter what demographic.

Giving this show both a relevancy and a relatability, New
Line Theatre is presenting the original regional version, which premiered in Red
Bank, New Jersey in 2015, with music and lyrics by the Tony-nominated Joe
Iconis and book by Joe Tracz, which is adapted from Ned Vizzini’s 2004 novel. An
off-Broadway smash hit in 2018, “Be More Chill” moved to Broadway in February
with an expanded version that is more ‘bigger is better.’

New Line keeps it focused with a tidy production, marked by
co-directors Mike Dowdy-Windsor’s and Scott Miller’s high-spirited and insightful
interpretation. This is arguably a defining moment for this fearless theater
troupe, and not only because they obtained the rights before its Broadway run, but
also because it’s a major leap forward as the company ends its 28th
season.

The well-cast ensemble, playing 11 characters, sparkles.
Each one has taken this show to heart with so much enthusiasm that it carries
over to the audience, which included many young fans expressing their delight
at every opportunity on opening night. Their joyous embrace of a show that
defines how they feel, look and act is refreshing. The powerful connection
between actors and theatergoers is electric and palpable. The performers feel
every word and the audience responds in kind.

Jayde Mitchell and Grace Langford

In one of the more memorable NLT debuts, Jayde Mitchell genuinely captured the teenage angst of nerdy Jeremy, who goes from zero to hero after a square little pill “from Japan” takes root in his brain, and this supercomputer communicates with a Squip (Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor). The Squip will guide his moves to become more popular at school. Mitchell announces himself as one to watch with his opening number, “More Than Survive,” and then transforms convincingly throughout, leading this finely tuned ensemble. The mysterious Squip, played with potent authority by Dominic Dowdy-Windsor, is stunningly dressed in a dapper black crocodile coat made by costume designer Sarah Porter. He is the catalyst for action good, bad and ugly. If he looks like Laurence Fishburne in “The Matrix,” it’s intentional.

Jayde Mitchell and Dominic Dowdy-WindsorDowdy-Windsor, always a strong singer, manages the beats of
the darker role, as he is usually cast in heroic or romantic leads, a la “Yeast
Nation” and “Zorba the Greek.” He’s terrific leading “Be More Chill” and
revealing more of his intentions in “The Pitiful Children.”

As we know from every John Hughes movie in the 1980s, being
a “Cool Kid” has its price, and losing/not valuing true-blue friends is one of
the harshest costs. Jeremy’s bestie, Michael Mell, must be sacrificed in his all-consuming
make-over quest to fit in and be liked – and not be invisible..

As Michael, dynamo Kevin Corpuz shines in a major supporting
role, giving his all – it’s a heartfelt performance, easily tugging at the
emotions in not only his delivery, but in his solo number, ‘Michael in the
Bathroom.”

Irrepressible Evan Fornachon plays Rich, a jerky Big Man on
Campus who likes to bully both Jeremy and Michael, displaying a menace that
makes his ‘a-ha’ moment all the better.

Jayde Mitchell and Evan FornachonJeremy’s Dad is played with marvelously droll delivery by
Zak Farmer, depressed over his recent divorce, who wanders around in a robe,
mortifying his son, who would like to have him put on some pants. How can you
not love a composer who gives you “The Pants Song”?

Farmer also doubles as Mr. Reyes, the cynical and animated
drama teacher. He is very funny, both in appearance with an interesting platinum
wig and in line delivery.

Another standout is Grace Langford playing ditzy Christine,
who had been the object of Jeremy’s affection before the hotter, sluttier girls
made a beeline for him once he had cool street cred. Her off-the-charts exuberance
over acting in school plays is a ‘been there, done that’ bright spot,
especially “I Love Play Rehearsal” and her candid “A Guy That I’d Kinda Be Into.”

Gossip girl Jenna is all attitude in the hands of Isabel
Garcia, who plays snarky, sassy and snotty with a duplicitous beaming smile.
Laura Renfro, as shallow Chloe, and Melissa Felps, as vapid Brooke, are
mercurial marvels here, powering through their characters’ hormones, secrets and
lies with glee, quickly flipping moods. Ian McCreary also displays the viper girls’
distasteful qualities as their shameless male counterpart Jake.

The meticulous attention to detail is evident in every
creative aspect, which are all in sync to create “a moment,” providing theater
patrons with an entirely memorable experience.

The simplicity of the music, with its repetitive lyrics and
catchy hooks, is deceptive, for music director Nicolas Valdez and his ace band
– Assistant music director Marc Vincent as conductor/keyboard, Jake Heberlie on
guitar, Joseph Henricks on reeds and keyboard, Clancy Newell on percussion and
Jake Stergos on bass are extremely tight in pacing and master the score’s
intricacies.

Choreographers Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack gave both
a playful bounce and a vitality to the group musical numbers.

Combined with the ensemble’s exquisite harmonies, the peppy
group numbers “Be More Chill,” “Upgrade” and “Voices in My Head” get stuck,
well, in your head. And yes,  “The
Smartphone Hour” is literal, funny and nails the cellphone phenomenon.

Scenic designer Rob Lippert’s set is a clever mix of effective
futuristic symbols and as always, his set is supremely functional. Everything
has a purpose for being there. Propmaster Kimi Short did a dandy job assembling
pieces that suit the décor and lifestyles.

Lippert, also the lighting designer, has excelled in
creating precarious teen moods and a fantasy futuristic element with his illuminating
plan. Ryan Day’s sound work is seamless.

In her wheelhouse, Porter has populated the oh-so-fun and
cringe-worthy Halloween Party with a variety of spot-on costumes, showcasing
both personality and pop culture references. Her work throughout is accurate –
and cheeky. She gets the ‘90s love.

“Be More Chill” is fresh and funny, and not in a jaded
‘we’re so clever and smart’ way, but with real heart, and that may be the most
important aspect – the emphasis on real.

 The musical, in
lyrics and book, speaks to us in a captivating way that transcends labels and
genres. It
targets our humanity. To make people feel less alone in this world is
a remarkable thing.

(There is a wall of Post-It Notes at The Marcelle indicating what people imagine as their Squip. I didn’t take marker to paper opening night, but I’ve thought about it since, and mine would be Oprah. What’s yours?)

The New Line Theatre is presenting “Be More Chill” through June 22 but is sold out for its complete run. For more information about New Line, visit www.NewLineTheatre.com

#BeMoreChillSTL

Photos by Jill Ritter Lindberg

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
There is a sparkle that emanates, not just because of the outward snazzy sequined
outfits and shimmery set in New Line Theatre’s “La Cage Aux Folles,” but also inward
from the all-male drag chorus, Les Cagelles. Their unbridled enthusiasm for a
show celebrating “Be Yourself” is obvious, and underneath their wigs and cosmetic
enhancements, it’s endearing.

In fact, one strongly feels the liberation of the drag chorus, supporting players and in the tour-de-force performance from Zachary Allen Farmer as the drag diva Zaza/Albin. That palpable sense of freedom is one of the production’s most enduring qualities.

Set in the 1980s on the French Riviera, Georges (Robert
Doyle) and Albin (Farmer) have lived as a married couple for years and work
together – Georges runs the nightclub downstairs and Albin is the star
performer Zaza. They have raised the now-grown Jean-Michel (Kevin Corpuz) as
their son since birth, in their own version of a loving nuclear family. Biologically,
he’s Georges’ son, born from a one-night dalliance with a woman who has chosen
not to be an integral factor in the boy’s life.

When Jean-Michel becomes engaged to Anne (Zora Vredeveld), her
ultra-conservative parents, politician dad Dindon (Kent Coffel) and mom (Mara
Bollini), are invited to dinner, prompting panic, for fear of exposing their ‘alternative’
lifestyle to disapproval, and ultimately, difficulties for Jean-Michel.

The ensuing melodrama and potential disasters are more akin
to an episode of “I Love Lucy” – and it’s all because of trying to hide who
they really are. But then, what the hell – dignity eventually reigns. In the
meantime, wackiness ensues for plenty of side-splitting laughs, with co-directors’
Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor’s deft touch.

Focusing on characters who are loud, proud and know who they are is the hallmark of “La Cage Aux Folles” in all its art forms, from the hilarious 1973 French play by Jean Poiret, to the French film adaptation in 1978 to the Tony-winning Jerry Herman-Harvey Fierstein Broadway musical in 1983 to the American movie version in 1996 “The Birdcage” to the Tony-winning Broadway revivals in 2004 and 2010.

It’s not a new view, by any means. You would think by now,
people wouldn’t have to keep defending themselves, but homophobia still exists
in the most insidious and cruel ways in the 21st century. Therefore,
“La Cage Aux Folles” remains timely, and important, and most importantly, fun.

As always, “La Cage” boldly stands up to hypocrisy, ignorance and self-righteous prigs with sharp social commentary wrapped in light-hearted comedy and hummable music. This delectable confection as a crowd-pleaser is a brilliant offense, and Fierstein’s smart script is redolent with both zingers and heartfelt moments.

But this cast emphasizes it with their own perceptible
feeling of family, that intangible quality that sells the show, and underlined
by the confident directors.

Zora Vredeveld, Kevin Corpuz, Kent Coffel and Mara Bollini. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.Farmer triumphantly leads this family in one of his finest performances. The actor, with multiple St. Louis Theater Circle nominations spanning seven years, has long since proven his versatility. He has been moving before – as the loner in “The Night of the Living Dead” and the slighted genius Leo Szilard in “Atomic,” and charming — the protective dad in “The Zombies of Penzance” and befuddled Sir Evelyn Oakleigh in “Anything Goes,” and comical as the iconoclast “Butkowski” and villain in “Celebration,” but the high-wire demands of Zaza/Albin go beyond the physical and present the biggest challenge.

Farmer is believable as this temperamental drama queen,
both in carriage and conviction. He looks fabulous, rocking the outfits – especially
that gorgeous lilac gown in the show-stopping “I Am What I Am,” notably after a
real-life 163-lb. weight loss. He projects effeminate airs, but not in a campy,
cartoonish way – they are organic to his character.

Because he isn’t merely window-dressing, Farmer’s transparency
showing the quicksilver mood swings — the hurt, the love and the defiance — ring
true. That makes him genuinely affecting as a transvestite man, while pushed to
the sidelines by convention, who refuses to be a cliché.

Robert Doyle and Zak Farmer. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.Farmer is so sensational that perhaps Georges suffers in
comparison. As written, the part is in the parlance of a ‘straight man’ in a
comedy duo, and Robert Doyle is rather bland in the role, more in the shadow of
the very flamboyant characters. A few of the early songs seem a little shaky –
the duet “With You on My Arm” and “Song on the Sand,” but it could have been a
lower range issue on opening night. In the second act, “Look Over There” was
much more assertive.

The young engaged couple – Corpuz and Vredeveld – also are
secondary to the daffy proceedings because of the big personalities unleashed
here. They have a sweet dance interlude and competently convey their roles, but
really, the focus is pulled more towards the outrageous goings-on.

Tielere Cheatem as Jacob. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.As the mercurial butler Jacob, Tielere Cheatem is dandy cavorting
in whirlwind prima donna mode. Strutting like a peacock, all attitude and
motion, Cheatem is a nimble laugh-riot making numerous scene-stealing entrances
in a procession of increasingly over-the-top outfits. His comic timing is
impressive.

When a pompous bigoted politician is set up for comeuppance, you know good humor will result, and the expressive Coffel milks it for laughs. And Bollini, as the snobbish wife and mother, is a good sport.

Both also play progressive restaurateurs M. and Madame
Renaud, and their “Masculinity” scene giving Albin tips on how to be macho is a
standout.

Lindsey Jones and Zak Farmer. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.Lindsey Jones is used effectively as Jacqueline, a chic
restaurant owner whose place is the setting for some fireworks and several
terrific numbers – “La Cage aux Folles” and “The Best of Times.”

As previously mentioned, the spirited Les Cagelles are a
high point with their ebullience and energy — Jake Blonstein, Dominic
Dowdy-Windsor, Evan Fornachon, Tim Kaniecki, Clayton Humburg and Ian McCreary are
gleeful as real accomplished showmen.

Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.Fornachon, as the dominatrix Hanna, is quite comfortable
cracking a whip. A running gag is his ‘physical’ relationship with nightclub stage
manager Francis (Joel Hackbarth).

As a cohesive cast, it does not matter who’s really gay or
straight, all are convincing and display a commitment to their characters by
not relying on superficial stereotypes.

Behind the scenes are several unsung heroes – namely, stellar costume designer Sarah Porter, whose work is stunning. She also guided the make-up and wig applications with outstanding results.

Sara Rae Womack and Michelle Sauer choreographed the peppy musical numbers, moving Les Cagelles well in the provided space.

Nicolas Valdez’ work as music director is also exceptional –
he leads the Jerry Herman score with vitality, and the vocalists enunciate the
lyrics well. Herman, who crafted such iconic shows as “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame,”
succeeded here with a traditional score but with a definitive light touch.

Valdez’ band – Kelly Austermann on reeds, Ron Foster on trumpet, Tom Hanson on trombone, Clancy Newell on percussion and Jake Sergos on bass – is a finely tuned ensemble that created a smooth, effortless flow of upbeat tempos and poignant ballads. They are hidden behind a scrim, which worked out well.

Next to the grand “I Am What I Am,” my favorite number was “The
Best of Times,” delivered crisply as a robust, sentimental tune summing up the
show’s poignancy – and a swell sing-a-long moment.

Rob Lippert’s colorful scenic design had plenty of pizzazz –
a functional combination of glitzy showplace and living quarters. And his
lighting design competently alternated between daylight and nightlife. Ryan Day’s
expert sound design is consistently good.

There is an obvious joy and compassion in this work, and because everyone involved is having such a good time, it carries over to the audience. After all, love is love is love is love.

None of us need permission to be who we are, but “La Cage Aux Folles” reminds us that we are all free to be you and me. And that’s mighty fine any time.

Photo by Jill Ritter LIndbergNew Line Theatre presents “La Cage Aux Folles” March 1 through March 23, Thursday through Saturdays at 8 p.m. at The Marcelle Theatre in the Grand Arts District. For tickets, visit Metrotix.com or call 314-534-1111. For more information, visit www.newlinetheatre.com