Sunday, October 19, 2003

New shows score with smarts, originality

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Two of the most original works to score as Broadway hits in recent New York seasons debut in Cincinnati this week. Multiple Tony Award winners both, Metamorphoses and Urinetown promise the hottest nights of the local theater season.

Metamorphoses, performed in and around a glimmering pool, was a post-Sept- 11 triumph in New York for director/adapter Mary Zimmerman, who uses ancient stories of gods and men (and women) to celebrate the human heart in love, loss, triumph and transformation. It begins a month-long run at Playhouse in the Park on Tuesday.

Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Cincinnati also opens its season Tuesday with the rudely titled Broadway darling. Urinetown is the smartest possible send-up of corporate America. It also has a savvy, self-awareness of the conventions of musical theater, with a beat-cop narrator who chats with the audience and sings songs like "Too Much Exposition."

In both cases, invention is the mother of great art.

Spellbinding stories

Metamorphoses, says Zimmerman, "is the surest possible bet" for audiences.

Metamorphoses is a series of spellbinding stories that "were all around for thousands of years before (Roman storyteller) Ovid wrote them down. There's something pertinent about stories that stay around that long. They say what it is to be a person."

Take, for instance, staggeringly wealthy businessman Midas. When he does a favor for mythic party animal Bacchus, he's offered a gift. Greedy Midas wants the golden touch. All too quickly he learns there really are some things money can't buy - or fix.

There is heartbroken musician Orpheus descending into the Underworld in search of his bride who has died on their wedding day. And hunky young Phaeton visiting his therapist, traumatized by abandonment issues with his father Apollo, god of the sun.

Issues everyone relates to, Zimmerman points out, even thousands of years ago, in the earliest days of humankind. Ancient stories, she says, "tell us we're not alone - now or at any time in human history."

'Genius' writer

Finding ways to bring classic world literature to life for contemporary audiences has earned Zimmerman a MacArthur "genius" grant and national and international acclaim.

This is the first time one of her works will be seen in Cincinnati. It will be re-staged here by Eric Rosen.

What she likes to do, Zimmerman laughs, is the impossible.

And that means finding the essence of a story, "having the image suggested rather than exactly represented, and asking the audience to join hands with us, to remember their own imaginative ability. It creates a union, an intimacy."

Garage band theater

Not surprisingly, neither of these Broadway hits was developed in the commercial theater.

Metamorphoses started out in university laboratory and regional theater. Urinetown first saw life at the New York International Fringe Festival.

Book writer and co-lyricist Greg Kotis calls Urinetown "my garage band version of theater. It's completely my sensibility - the fierceness, the resourcefulness, the outsider's perspective."

Do not look to Kotis and composer co-lyricist Mark Hollman for traditional choices - "happy ending, love story with easy resolution, good title, good subject matter," Kotis ticks off.

"Some shows are fantastic spectacles. Our show isn't."

Yes, it's true, says Kotis, Urinetown did have its inspiration back in 1995, when he was in Paris, down to his last francs and equally in need of lunch and a pay public toilet.

"It was a musical in that moment, because you want the idea as grand as possible," Kotis says.

Which is pretty interesting considering that "my perception of musicals was pretty low before working on this piece. (His prior musical recollections are limited to acknowledging he'd done some in high school and "I think my mom took me to Sugar Babies.")

A musical in that moment, but Hollman, who met Kotis when they worked together in an improv comedy troupe in Chicago, says it took his would-be writing partner "about a year" to call him and tell him about the idea.

"That's typical of Greg. Typical of me, too," Hollman muses.

Kotis finally did tell Hollman the hilarious, sublime, ridiculous story in which the characters suffer a horrific water shortage in a city very like New York.

They are reduced to using pay facilities, all of which are operated by Urine Good Company, a timely riff on privatization of public utilities.

Mess with Big Bro and you're sent to Urinetown, a place from which no one returns.

(Urinal manager Pennywise is played by University of Cincinnati grad Beth McVey, who belts out the big number "It's a Privilege to Pee.")

"I like the unlikely thing," offers Kotis. "I'm attracted to the unlikely, the unpredictable, the surprising. It's like Peewee Reese - hit 'em where they ain't."


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