Satire and plungers take Winthrop stage

adouglas@heraldonline.comOctober 1, 2013 

The first production under Winthrop University’s newest performance arts program brings toilet plungers and plenty of Tony Award-winning humor to the stage.

“Urinetown,” a satirical musical set in a fictional city severely hit by a drought, takes on some “dark content, but it’s told in a comedic light,” says one Winthrop actress.

Katie Meyers, 21, is a senior theater student at Winthrop. She plays a 10-year-old character, Little Sally, in “Urinetown” and helps narrate.

To get in to character, Meyers is tapping past experience from working as a nanny for children.

Being able to “access my inner kid,” she said, is important to play Little Sally well.

While Meyers says she plays “a know-it-all,” the character is “actually very intuitive about things.”

In “Urinetown,” a know-it-all like Little Sally has plenty to question.

The poor people in the musical have been oppressed for decades, forced to “pay to pee” after local officials outlawed the use of private bathrooms.

If residents don’t follow the rules to help conserve water, they face being sent to a mysterious place called “Urinetown.”

In the musical’s first act when Little Sally asks fellow narrator Officer Lockstock what “Urinetown” is, he tells her, “There is no Urinetown; we just kill people.”

The plot is far from a “traditional story,” Meyers said, and the humor – while it involves toilets and plungers – is still family-friendly.

In fact, “it’s probably a 7-year-old’s dream to come to this show,” she said.

While “Urinetown” humor isn’t necessarily crude, some of its themes “push the envelope”– something Winthrop junior Emily Cupit says is a perk of college theater.

With a fire hydrant, sewer pipes and plungers on stage, “Urinetown” actors tackle topics such as capitalism and corrupt local government and poke fun at the musical theater culture.

Cupit, 20, plays Penelope Pennywise, one of the characters who runs the public toilet amenities in the fictional town.

Her amenity is where the uprising in the story begins.

Cupit’s character keeps a big secret until the end of act two, and Penelope Pennywise is at the middle of “Urinetown’s” plot twist.

And, she said, if the audience is surprised by her character’s role at the end of act two, they’ll be even more surprised by the time “Urinetown’s” curtains close.

“At the end, there’s a lesson, but it’s not what you’d expect,” Cupit said.

Cupit, Meyers and the other Winthrop students singing, dancing and acting in “Urinetown” have already wowed faculty members overseeing the production.

Dan Stein, an adjunct music professor at Winthrop, is helping director Stephen Gundersheim and says the talent level in “Urinetown” is impressive.

It’s his first experience co-managing a stage production on campus because Winthrop’s musical theater discipline is a new option.

The addition makes Winthrop only the second school in South Carolina to offer musical theater as a concentration in its theater department. Students graduate with a bachelor’s degree in arts.

There are no restrictions on experience or choice of major for students wanting to participate in Winthrop productions.

But “Urinetown” isn’t an easy musical to pull off, Stein said.

The music is fun and upbeat, he said, but the “tight harmonies” are a challenge – particularly for students who aren’t exclusively studying music at Winthrop.

The production did well on Broadway in New York City, he said, but opened just after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Attention for “Urinetown” was limited then, Stein said, but the musical gathered steam and won three Tony Awards.

He hopes Winthrop’s performance of “Urinetown” is the start to a great partnership between dance, music and theater programs on campus, he said.

Combining the three disciplines of performance will give students a competitive edge in the workforce, Stein said.

Those who can sing, dance and act are viewed as a “triple threat” on stage and usually have the best prospects of finding a job.

The musical theater concentration will probably attract more new students to Winthrop, he said, and help the university take on productions on “a greater scale.”

Want to go?

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Oct. 5, and 2 p.m. Oct. 5 and 6.

Where: Johnson Theater in Johnson Hall at Winthrop University

Tickets: $10 with Winthrop ID, $15 public

Music by Mark Hollmann, lyrics by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis and book by Greg Kotis

Directed by Stephen Gundersheim, Winthrop faculty member

More information, call 803-323-2399 or 803-323-3000, or visit winthrop.edu/arts

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