Palm Harbor students Josh Perlin and Danielle Denninger perform “Mr. Cladwell” during the first act of “Urinetown.”
PALM HARBOR – “Urinetown” isn’t as much a play about urine as it is a satirical musical comedy, said stage manager Alexis O’Donnell.
“It’s futuristic and dystopian,” she said. “We’re creating a post-apocalyptic world.”
A heady goal for a group of high school students, but that’s exactly what the Palm Harbor University High School drama club aims to do.
On March 28, about 50 students will make their way to the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa for the Florida State Thespian Festival where they will perform “Urinetown” in the Morsani Theatre.
This year, judges critiqued high school plays around the state and invited nine schools to perform their show as a “mainstage” as the largest performances throughout the event; Morsani Theatre holds 2,610 seats.
Urinetown, music by Mark Hollmann and book by Greg Kotis, satirizes the legal system, capitalism, and bureaucracy in a town where a 20-year drought has led Urine Good Company (UGC) to privatize toilets and charge residents for their use. Those who use the toilets without paying are sent to a penal colony called Urinetown. The show, which ran on Broadway from Sept. 2001 to Jan. 2004, was nominated for 10 Tony Awards and won three.
At Morsani Theatre, the audience will consist completely of student thespians from Florida and their directors, a different experience from putting on the musical in front of classmates, said senior Tim Hart.
“Thespians are the best audience to perform for,” he said. “They’ll eat anything up, and they’re so supportive.
O’Donnell, a senior at Palm Harbor University, said she’s excited to see how a new audience will react to the show.
“We obviously want people to enjoy the show,” she said, “but we also want them to appreciate the messages behind the show.”
Junior Kayley Kinports said the most difficult part for her was relating to her character, Penelope Pennywise. Pennywise, the warden of the dirtiest urinal in town, is an authoritative figure who lives to keep order, a role that Kinports said is unlike her feminine (and clean) personality.
“The first I do is define my walk,” Kinports said. “It’s the first thing you see and it sets up your character before speaking. Then the walk works its way in through the rest of the character.”
Hart, who plays Assistant Custodian Bobby Strong, said he doesn’t try to relate to his characters.
Citing Constantin Stanislaksi, a Russian actor and director, Hart talked about how he disagreed with the theory of method acting, or experiencing the part during the performance.
“It’s like creating an emulation of yourself,” Hart said. Instead, he said he prefers to create a completely new personality for his character; in “Urinetown,” Hart described himself as “super smug.”
Graham Howard, the drama teacher at Palm Harbor University and the director of “Urinetown,” said he chose the production because of the great music and his faith in his students to live up to the standards of the show, but also because it fit so well into his curriculum for his classes.
“A lot of my teaching has been about what goes into a production,” Howard said. “’Urinetown’ allows me to incorporate so many theories into directing.”
Despite initial assumptions about the show, Howard said he wanted to make sure that audiences knew that “Urinetown” is completely family-friendly.
“The name is part of the gag, the joke, the in-your-face satire that the author was looking for,” he said. “This is a perfect example of why you can’t judge a show by its title.”
Justin Havard, the chorus teacher at Palm Harbor University and musical director of the show, said that his students had no problems with the arrangements after the first few weeks of rehearsals.
“One of the best parts is that the music pays homage to so many other shows, like Les Miserables, Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story and Brigadoon,” he said. “That’s a really modern thing to do in theater.”
For senior Miguel Corteo, the hardest part was hitting the high notes that were at the top of his vocal range. During each performance, he said, he could drink as many as seven bottles of water.
“We keep a bottle of honey in each wing of the stage to drink between songs,” added senior Danielle Denninger. “It’s a hard show, but everyone is great.”
“Urinetown” will be the last big show Howard puts on at Palm Harbor University, as he is set to retire after the current school year.
“I’ve achieved everything I would have hoped to in my teaching career,” he said. “It’s time to start a new phase of my life.”
He’s excited, he said, to leave after this year, knowing that his students can put on a great show without him – even though his students aren’t as excited about his departure.
Still, Howard said he’s focusing on “Urinetown” and the success he expects at the state festival.
“Audiences have really enjoyed it so far; the music is so happy and joyful,” he said. “For people who know theater, it’s a lot of fun. For everyone else, it’s over the top and melodramatic, but with heart and conscience.”
“Urinetown” will next be performed on March 21 at 7 p.m. at the Palm Harbor University High School auditorium, a week before the students bring the performance to Morsani Hall. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the door.