When Canadian stage actress Mary Ann McDonald got the call from her agent a few months ago about a show called "Urinetown," she was, shall we say, peeved.
"That title!" said McDonald by phone. After some prodding from producers, she took the role in the musical comedy that has since become a sell-out at Toronto's Bluma Appel Theatre.
The show's title seems to attract a wide range of reactions. Just ask someone if they're planning on traveling north to catch the sleeper hit, and see what they shoot back with.
"Urine . . . town? Like, pee, urine?"
"You're in town?"
"Who's in town? What town are we talking about? I'm confused."
McDonald's first reaction was a little more blunt.
"No, I don't think so," she remembers thinking when first hearing the show's unique premise -- a poor town, suffering from a water shortage, resorts to using corporate-sanctioned pay-per-pee public toilets, until a rebel custodian leads a revolution for free and equal, er, urination.
"It really put me off. I wasn't interested in it in the first place, so I didn't bother to look at it," said McDonald, whose stage roles have tended towards the prim and proper (if not altogether sanitary). Last season she appeared in the Stratford Festival's "The Sound of Music" after having taken on the depressed Fosca in Stephen Sondheim's "Passion" for CanStage, the producing theater of this Canadian premiere of "Urinetown."
But like audiences around town -- and, thanks to a national tour, around the country as well -- McDonald warmed quickly to the concept that urine isn't the focus of the show. It's merely a backdrop for larger, certainly more important, issues. Issues like romance, the plight of the poor, corporate monopoly, "Les Miserables"-esque revolution, and -- let's not forget we're talking about a musical, here -- fabulous production numbers.
"I think it's fantastic," said McDonald. "It's so original and so fresh -- unlike anything I've seen. And I've always wanted to do a show about environmentalism."
Environmentalism? While the matters of Mother Earth may not be the show's central intent, it does play its role. If a town is so poor and it can't even keep its water at normal levels, how can its residents be expected to pay for the essential human right to urinate? It's akin to receiving a bill for using fresh air.
"It's in there. Under many layers of silliness, there is a seriousness," said McDonald.
"I see it as a cross between 'The Simpsons' and 'Romeo and Juliet,'" said McDonald's co-star, Broadway and Canadian theater regular David Keeley, who plays Officer Lockstock, one of two patrolling cops who enforce the town's urination laws.
The experience of working with the show's original creative team -- director John Rando, who won the 2002 Tony Award for his direction, as well as nominated choreographer John Carrafa -- has been rewarding to Keeley.
"There's a handful of directors I'd walk across water to work with," Keeley said. "And (Rando's) one of them. Everyone (from the Broadway production) came up -- the fight director (Rick Sordelet), lighting director (Brian MacDevitt), Carrafa. Once in a while you run into a group of people who are all on the same page, and all have the same idea about something."
It's what was on the pages of "Urinetown's" script, though, that won Mark Hollmann (music and lyrics) and Greg Kotis (book and lyrics) Tony Awards in 2002.
Much like composer Marc Shaiman's (Broadway's "Hairspray") clever songs in the 1999 film "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," the trick to Hollmann and Kotis' satire is its ability to poke fun at its own existence -- as a Broadway musical.
The second act's "Snuff That Girl" takes its influence from Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" via its revival in the '90s Gap "cool" commercials. At one point in the song, about how the poor are going to kill the rich public toilet owner's daughter, who they've been keeping hostage, the citizens break out unnecessarily into syncopated snaps and Fosse-esque poses, complete with jazz hands.
"I See a River," the show's finale, proves, as "South Park's" "La Resistance" montage does, that a revolution is only effective if sung in a parade formation, its rebels waving a giant flag.
"It's not a 'Mamma Mia!' show. It's not warm and gooey. It's zany," said Keeley. "There's no nudge-nudge, wink-wink going on here. . . . Yes, it is presented in a very zany, crazy way, but we play it straight. If we play it straight, it's funny."
"(College students) are coming and just loving it, and they're obviously telling their friends," says McDonald. "Lots of old ladies are coming and just loving it."
And how does McDonald feel about "Urinetown" now, two months into a run that she initially wasn't interested in?
"I love it."