The setup: Gimme an I. Gimme an R. Gimme an O-N-Y! What does it spell? Contemporary Broadway! Where would the musical be without the wash of irony? The heirs of playwright Bertolt Brecht really should sue for copyright infringement, since it seems that every recent work has his alienated, expressionist style, where the theater's fourth wall has been neatly battered down. When used in musicals, the style is the ultimate valentine to past shows whose influences are put squarely center stage for all of us to appreciate. (If you don't know the musicals that are so lovingly parodied, it doesn't really matter; it's the tone that counts.) Urinetown is the last word in this type of show.
The execution: With music and lyrics by Mark Hollmann and book by Greg Kotis, this 2002 Tony winner (which moved from way-Off Broadway, to Off-Broadway, to Broadway) skewers corporate greed, venal politicians, man's folly in doing good, and, most importantly, such musicals as Les Miserables, Sweeney Todd and Chicago. In the not-too-distant future, a drought and water shortage has necessitated the outlawing of private toilets, leaving public facilities -- owned by the rapacious UGH (Urine Good Hands), as the only place to pee. Young Bobby Strong (Michael J. Ross in rock star voice) foments rebellion among the down-and-outs, falls in love with the innocently dopey daughter (Libby Evans) of the evil boss (Mark X. Laskowski), and leads the disaffected into the light of payless amenities -- sort of.
The verdict: Co-directed with swirling fluidity by Phillip Duggins and Kristina Sullivan, the bad taste is laugh-out-loud funny, thanks to Masquerade Theatre's total commitment and absolute joy in performing (which is a prerequisite for this to succeed). Among the wondrous fools, look for -- you can't miss them -- Luther Chakurian, Allison Sumrall, Rodrick Randall, Tyce Green and, peer of peers, Catherine Taylor as Little Sally, the show's conscience. Clutching her battered teddy bear as she learns the hard lessons, Taylor is quite phenomenal.
Masquerade Theatre's Urinetown runs through April 10 at Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For tickets, call 713-868-9696.