Picture a world plagued by massive drought and ruled by an evil dictator — this may not require much imagination. Now, envision that world, but filled with song and dance, parodying some of Broadway’s greatest musicals. To do that, you may need some help from Amherst College’s upcoming production of “Urinetown.”
The show will take place this weekend in the Powerhouse on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. each night. The performance will be the culmination of nearly a month of work from a group of Amherst and Five-College student cast and crew members. The group began practice on Jan. 3 and followed a professional theater schedule, meaning they rehearsed for nine hours a day, five days a week, rather than in the evenings after classes, as is more common for college productions.
The long days and intense time together made for a unique cast bond. “I think the cast bonded on a level I haven’t seen in a lot of other productions. Even if people weren’t called they would still come and hang out,” said student producer Paola Garcia-Prieto ’18.
The schedule also facilitated an environment that allowed students to fully dedicate themselves to their acting. “I love working on a professional schedule. I love working all day, every day on the show. I find that if you have people who want to do that, if they want to be here all day every day, they’re going to put on something spectacular,” said director Megan Healey.
This is Healey’s first year at Amherst, but she boasts a long history in theater and the experience of directing Arena Civic Theatre’s recent production of “Spring Awakening.” She also brought with her choreographer Susan Dresser and music director Anthony Ferreira, a UMass junior, both of whom she knew in the past but are new to working on an Amherst production.
For Ferreira, the new experience of working at Amherst has been a rewarding one. “I am impressed anytime I work with people my own age; it’s hard for me to expect for them to treat me like I’m not their age, but they always do. Amherst College has been no exception. They’re really respectful, and I’ve been so impressed,” he said.
Not only has Ferreira found himself impressed by the cast, but by the musical score itself. He described coming into the production feeling unenthused about the music. However, he said “Once I sat in front of the score and played through it, I realized ‘this is genius’. I realized every piece, every song satirized a work that came before it, and I was like ‘this is the best piece ever written.’ I ended up loving it. I love performing it.”
After falling in love with the written score, Ferreira aimed to be faithful to the written music in his musical design for the show. “I always try to be really true to what was written on the music front,” he said. “There are a lot fewer liberties to take out of respect. I’m a composition major, and I think I would want my music to be done the way I wrote it. I think I’m trying to be as true as possible, taking some liberties here and there, but on the whole, I’m trying to do what’s written.”
Choreographer Susan Dresser addressed similar questions of staying true to the original work while maintaining her individual touch in her design of dances. “I’m really passionate about not copying. I want to come up with my own, independent vision,” she explained. “Some of the challenge is ‘how do I reinvent that and how do I reinvent not just for reinvention sake?’ If there are things that work, I do need to stick to the story. Again, [we must remember] we are telling a story. That’s where in the dance numbers, for this particular show, the song and dance numbers become the sarcastic parody.”
Dresser went on the explain that in this case, she and Healey decided that to help the progression of the parodical nature of the play, it would be best to stay true to the style of dance used in the original musical numbers, which the satirical songs were based on.
Underneath the satire and silliness of the musical, however, lies a salient message about greed, poverty and environmental issues. Healey explained that this is what she hoped would really emerge in Amherst’s production of the play. “I feel like every time I’ve seen this show, it comes off a little creepy and a little campier than it needed to be for how relevant the topics are. I really wanted to focus on finding the genuine character rather than playing up the campiness of it. I think that all of our actors, without even asking them too, have remained loyal to the characters and the plot without overdoing it for laughs,” she said. “I hope what the audience takes away from it is that there is a bigger picture, there is a bigger issue going on in our country. Twenty years ago [when the show was written], it was being talked about and it’s still being talked about now; there has been no resolution. There is no real answer in this, other than kind of shedding light on the tragedy that it is. I definitely think these guys do a really good job at bringing the issues forward appropriately.”
Despite the show’s origin in 2001, the cast and crew are moved by the pertinence the messages hold in today’s world. “You would think they wrote it now; it’s very relevant,” said Garcia-Prieto. “It’s a lot about capitalism and corporate greed. Even in the first song, the poor people sing that if you don’t do what you’re told, you will be sent off the Urinetown, and then you have the rich people singing that this is the oldest story: masses are oppressed, rich folks get the good life and poor folks get the woe. It’s relevant in the same way that many stories about how environmental problems affect poor people the most are. I think that’s what the story is trying to get across, while still having fun with the sense of revolution and mocking musicals.”
The show ends with a somewhat disheartening conclusion — or lack thereof. The townsfolk find themselves still stuck in drought without a system to address their issues. However, the show’s lack of conclusion did not lead the producers to see the same end; inspired by the social relevance of the play, Garcia Prieto sought out charities that address issues of drought and clean water access so that the musical could fundraise for such groups. “The whole premise of Urinetown is that they’re in a drought and they have to pay to pee, and it’s kind of joked about that we don’t talk about the bigger issues of water, but I thought it would be a bit tone-deaf to do a silly play about not having water, when there are plenty places in the world that don’t have access to clean water, so I wanted to dedicate this performance and make it partly a fundraiser for a charity that helps other places in third world countries or even in rural areas get access to water,” she said.
After some research, she found the group Water for People, a non-profit that works with communitues to create long-term, sustainable access to water. 50 percent of ticket sales will go towards this charity, and patrons are invited to give donations as well. Tickets are available online, free for Five College students and staff, $15 for adults and $10 for seniors and children.