Arts Listings

Playhouse’s Youth Perform ‘Urinetown’

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday August 13, 2009 - 10:32:00 AM

While selling out shows at the Ashby Stage by their adult professional company of the musical “Peter Pan,” an old chestnut about the Lost Boys escaping from the adult world in Never-Never Land, Berkeley Playhouse’s youth company is putting on a two-night only staging of what Berkeley Playhouse’s managing director called “an anti-establishment piece,” the Broadway hit musical “Urinetown.” inspired by Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill classics like “Threepenny Opera” and “Mahagony,” at the Julia Morgan Theatre this weekend. 

“The set’s—well, junk basically! that’s been gathered up, and bare scaffolding,” said Jerry Foust of Berkeley Playhouse, “It feels very much industrial.” The past month, the teenagers in the youth company have been rehearsing the show and building the set, making their own props as a team, part of the process. 

“The piece itself begs for something unconventional,” said Foust. “It has a bare bones feel, with some hints at what we took from the original Broadway production. Our director, Jon Tracy, has real outside-the-box thinking; he’s committed to ensemble-based work.” 

Tracy’s joined by choreographer Kimberly Dooley and musical director Phil Gorman, both of Berkeley Playhouse, in heading the production team, which also sees teens working backstage, some assisting being from Berkeley High School. 

“Urinetown” details the futuristic—but (doubly) uncomfortably contemporary—tale of a 20-year drought and what havoc it wrecks on a New York-like metropolis, where private toilets are outlawed, and the populace is forced to ... go ... to public facilities, controled by a merciless, evil monopoly. But finally, there’s a man who’s had enough, and holding nothing back ... 

“The writer was inspired when traveling in Europe on a student budget, being forced to pay for a public toilet,” said Foust. “Teaming up with the composer, they came up with a musical that explores, makes fun of—yet is a tribute to—the great American musical comedy. There are a lot of tongue-in-cheek jokes. And political satire. It’s definitely intelligent—and a little unconventional for a teen group. We think it’s a good experience for them.” 

Foust went on to reflect on the difference between the adult company—”very mainstream, staging shows that appeal to the masses”—with the youth troupe. “It’s different. It’s educational; what it explores isn’t the mainstream. This winter, they’ll do “Godspell” about the establishment of religion, and next summer, “Pippin,” a very dark show. We want to expose them to the less commercial.” 

The summer programs are designed as intensive acting camps, teaching basic skills, with “different artistic chores—music, set-building, props, participating in the design ...” Some of the youth company participated as interns in “Peter Pan,” playing the Lost Boys, at the same time as preparing for “Urinetown.”  

“Ninety-nine percent of the shows for “Peter Pan” were sell-outs,” Foust said. “Every week we’ve had a wait list. We’ve doubled our projections, and will sell 3,900 to 4,000 tickets for 33 shows at the Ashby Stage by the end of the run. And every time our classes are announced in a pre-curtain speech, people check it out for their kids.” 

Berkeley Playhouse began a few years back in founder and artistic director Elizabeth McKoy’s living room, with friends as the audience. “Officially, we’re two years old,” said Foust. A few weeks ago, the Playhouse announced its merger with the Julia Morgan Center, where it’s housed, in a partnership to create an institution for bringing theater to families and training young people for it.