Village Repertory Company
The coming weekend in Charleston presents a rare but interesting alignment for theatregoers. Just two weeks in the wake of Charleston Stage's huge Ragtime, a Homeric odyssey of a musical at the Dock Street Theatre with a singing cast of 40, another two big musicals open against each other on Friday at Footlight Theatre and The Village Playhouse. Both of them were groundbreaking vehicles when they premiered. (They both also revolve around young, single lead characters named Bobby, for what it's worth.)
At Footlight, director Robert Ivey revives Company, the classic 1970 Stephen Sondheim comedy showpiece about sex, singlehood, marital angst, and middle-class existentialism that he first directed there in 1998. At Mt. Pleasant's Playhouse, director Maida Lipkin unveils the Charleston premiere of 2001's Urinetown, the sly social-satirical comedic hit about ... well, why don't we come back to that.
Both companies are pulling out all the stops, and each production will spill over into Piccolo Spoleto. The situation's got all the makings of a mano y mano theatre smackdown — except there are roughly 40 singer/actors involved, so it's more like a street brawl. Between two gangs made up of showtunes fans... Okay, fine, maybe it's more West Side Story than WWF, but I'm still calling it a smackdown.
I asked people involved with each of the two productions to sell me on their show. And then, just to make things interesting, I asked them each to try to sell me on the other company's production.
"Urinetown is set in the future, in a metropolis where a 20-year drought has diminished the water supply to nothing," says Keely Enright, Village Playhouse artistic director. "The government has taken all the bathrooms out of the homes and given the job of running the public amenities to a private contractor named Urine Good Company. They're like the Enron of the public bathroom industry — corrupt and unjust and they can charge whatever they want and do anything they want. It reminds me a lot of how Bush works," she laughs.
"It has a lot of the feel of Brecht and his Threepenny Opera, The Cradle Will Rock, sort of pseudo 1930s, standing up for the little man, that kind of stuff," Enright continues. "The plot is really just a jumping-off point for the writers to spoof musicals and musical theatre — everything from Fiddler to Les Miz, it's all satired and parodied. The music is fantastic, just as great as any score you'll hear in musical theatre. And it's fun to listen to this great music and realize they're just singing about pee."
"The biggest thing about it is it's incredibly entertaining.," says Director Maida Lipkin. On one hand, it deals with issues, the environment, corporate bad guys, politics, bureaucracy. But on the other hand it's a brilliant parody of musicals, including itself. You walk away and you feel like you've gone through the funniest, silliest experience you've ever had, but it also deal with some deeper issues."
"The set for this one's almost as extensive as anything we've ever done," Enright observes. "We've got catwalks and raised areas, a lot of scaffolding. We're utilizing the space as best we can, even making use of the hideous pipes in the ceiling. After four years, we're finally working the air-conditioning ductwork into a show."
"It's a story about relationships," says director Robert Ivey, who's also Footlight's new artistic director. "Bobby is a single man who's just turning 35 and whose best friends are all married couples. The show is a series of playlets that deal with the relationships not just between the couples but between each of those people with Bobby. The age of 35 is a big milestone in a lot of people's lives, and he has to decide whether he's going to get married or stay single. The show never solves that problem, which is a great thing about it.
"This is the second time for me directing it here. It's a big production, musically. The great thing about Company is it's timeless. It premiered in 1970, but I never think about it as a period piece. It's relevant for every age.
"It's got a multilevel set with four different levels. It's one of those plays where the audience is really involved. Everyone who's in it is young and eager and really wants to do it. I've got a good cast, but it did take some reaching out and doing several casting calls. It's really refreshing to find some people I didn't even know existed in the community. And they all have to be musicians, too. Everything is in four-part harmony, so they have to really be able to read music."
Ivey on Urinetown: "I think people are going to be surprised by Urinetown. They'll find it's not really about, you know... Well, not directly. Actually, it sort of is. But it's a political kind of show, it makes a statement that's very relevant right now, with crazy taxes, politicians out of control, that sort of thing. It's got lots of great characters, great music. It's a fun show. It's very nontraditional and self referential. It makes fun of musicals a lot. Hopefully people will try it. Let's just say I don't think anybody's gonna get pissed off by it..."
lipkin on company: "I was the music director for Bob's production of Company at Foootlight back in 1998. And Bill, my husband, was the lead I that show. Anything by Sondheim is a worthwhile thing to see and explore. When all is said and done, he'll go down as one of the best Broadway composers of the 20th century. Company is very different from Urinetown, but there are also similarities. It's very funny, but it also deals with deeper issues: relationships. Single and married life, trying to find your mate. It's very relevant in today's society anywhere in the country. And it's a thrilling piece of music theatre."
The Results: Enright gets points for witty political jabs and self-deprecating wit. Also, she says "pee," which satisfies.
Ivey suggests without laughing that a musical written in 1970 could not be a period piece. Does he remember what he was wearing in 1970? But he delivered the "pissed off" joke on the spur of the moment — nicely done, Bob.
Unfortunately, I couldn't get either one of the two artistic directors to dish any dirt about the other, no matter how hard I tried. Ah, well. Next time, the interviews happen in a cage. With machetes.