'Urinetown,' 'Woods,' and 'Millie' eye Tonys

The trend toward musicals that are either revivals or movies revised for the stage continued this spring with one notable exception, "Urinetown," a spoof that blew onto Broadway after its surprise off-Broadway success.

Despite the distressing title, Urinetown is a smart and funny affair that owes its sparkle more to the tradition of college varsity shows than to Rodgers and Hammerstein. It has been nominated for 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and has already won the "Outstanding Broadway Musical" prize from the Outer Critics.

The plot is a takeoff on modern business practices – timely, given the Enron debacle – and the showbiz excesses of several long-running Broadway icons, especially the overwrought theatrics of "Les Miserables." Best of all, the show is an original, a category that is nearly extinct on Broadway.

With music and lyrics by Mark Hollmann, and book and lyrics by Greg Kotis, the story takes place in a miserable town, Somewhere USA, where a 20-year drought has made flush facilities forbidden in private homes.

A large corporation controls the public restrooms – for cash – making the greedy entrepreneurs wealthy at the expense of the woebegone citizens. Scott Pask, credited with the show's scenic and environment design, has made a wreck of The Henry Miller Theater, creating a convincing setting that surrounds the audience with scaffolding and pock-marked walls.

When the revolution comes, complete with German playwright Bertolt Brecht-type fervor, the people take to the sewers to escape the police, who are on the corporation payroll.

Director John Rando wastes no opportunity to wring out the gags, echoed by John Carrafa's choreography that skewers some of the beloved dance numbers of the past, particularly the Jerome Robbins' trademark movements from "West Side Story" and "Fiddler On The Roof."

A splendid cast, including veteran John Cullen as the CEO, pushes the limits of goofiness in a show that seems to divide viewers into opposing camps of the I-love-it or I-hate-it variety.

Choreographer Carrafa, a former Twyla Tharp dancer who seems to be everywhere in musical theater this season, also contributed the movement patterns for the revival of Stephen Sondheim's Into The Woods, which won the 1989 Tony Award for Best Musical and is up for 10 more Tonys, including Best Musical Revival.

Sondheim and James Lapine, who wrote the book for the musical and directed the première as well as this revival, combined the fairy tales "Cinderella," "Rapunzel," "Little Red Riding Hood," and "Jack The Giant Killer" with an original story about a baker and his wife who long for a child. Sondheim and Lapine went beyond the expected to explore the premise of what happens in the real world after the happily-ever-after endings. The characters are clueless at first, taking things as they seem until they realize they must take responsibility for their actions.

Jack might have killed the Giant and made off with his treasures, but what of Mrs. Giant and her anger? With a black-hued second act that turns the green and leafy woods into a reminder of Hiroshima, it's not a show for children. Sondheim's score has aged well, enhanced by the voices of an excellent cast.

Vanessa Williams, a glamourous witch, is amusing but does not quite erase the memory of Bernadette Peters, who created the role. John McMartin makes a dapper narrator in the style of public television's Masterpiece Theatre.

Thoroughly Modern Millie is a déjà vu concoction, a musical taken from the 1967 film of the same name that holds too many reminders of its ancestors. It leads the list of Tony nominations with 11. Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan based the book on the story and screenplay by Morris for the film.

New music and lyrics by Jeanine Tesori and Scanlan have been added to earlier songs. The theme of a girl from the sticks who arrives in New York ready to make her fortune has already been exploited to extinction.

(Does anyone remember the 1953 musical "Wonderful Town," based on Ruth McKenney's stories about "My Sister Eileen," with its melodic score by Leonard Bernstein?)

The girl-gets-New York is spiced up with a subtext of innocent maidens being kidnapped from the women's residence and sent into white slavery in Hong Kong, but all ends happily.

The proceedings, directed by Michael Mayer, have been punched up by renditions of the Charleston in homage to the 1920s, choreographed by Rob Ashford. The sense of spectacle is reinforced by the pastel costumes and art-deco skyscrapers backing David Gallo's settings.

Newcomer Sutton Foster, who sings and dances every number as if her life depended on putting it across, is a success story on her own. She was the understudy for the part in San Diego, where the show had its tryout, and stepped into the lead a few days before opening. Her sidekick, Angela Christian, is as fetching as Foster and threatens to steal the show.

The prediction in this corner for the Tony Award for Best Musical goes to "Urinetown," with "Into The Woods" as Best Musical Revival.

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