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Signature: Better Than Broadway

Joe Calarco directs smashing spoof with awful title.

<bt>The musical with the self-admittedly awful title of "Urinetown," which was a surprise hit on Broadway a few years ago, gets its first post-Broadway production at Arlington's Signature Theatre. Thanks to the combination of a splendid cast, a great design team and the talented touch of director Joe Calarco, the show is even more fun than it was in New York.

Part of the reason may be Signature's tiny, 136-seat house in a former chromeplating shop on South Four Mile Run Drive, which puts the audience even closer to the action, removes the necessity for the artificial sound of over-amplified voices and, with its industrial atmosphere, simply feels right for a musical set primarily in grimy locales.

Surprisingly, Signature did not follow its normal procedure of decorating the entrance hall leading to the theater in a way that acts as a transition to the world of the show. It would seem that a collection of pipes and plumbing paraphernalia would have been just right for "Urinetown." You see, the central conceit of the show (as the narrator Stephen F. Schmidt explains in the opening number) is that a decades-long drought has made water so precious that private toilets had to be outlawed and the entire population has been required to use only public "amenities," where they have to pay a fee.

Plumbing in the hallway was practically the only thing they missed in this high spirited, campy spoof with its playful lyrics ("It's the oldest story. Masses are oppressed. Faces, clothes and bladders all distressed.") sharp dialogue ("what an unexpected surprise!" "Is there any other kind?") and highly melodic songs of varied tempos.

With a cast of 16 and five musicians in the band, this production is the same as the original company on Broadway. No downsized script or score here! Plus, it is about 50 feet closer to most of the people in the audience.

Just as Calarco's earlier outing directing a musical in this hall, "Side Show," (which earned him one of his two Helen Hayes Awards for outstanding directing) "Urinetown" features a good deal of fantastic singing at very close range.

CAST AS THE hero is Signature regular Will Gartshore. Always something of a hunk, he must have spent some extra time at the gym buffing up for this role that has him bare chested much of the time. His ability to send a soaring melody resounding through Signature's low-ceilinged house is well used.

New to Signature's company is Erin Driscoll, who is a welcome addition as the pert heroine. Other members of the cast more familiar to Signature audiences are Christopher Bloch as the megalomaniac monopolist and Donna Migliaccio who is hilarious in her big "It's a Privilege To Pee" number.

Pulling it all together with a combination of whimsy and panache is Jenna Sokolowski as the narrator's foil who also triggers the final affectionate parody with a choreographed repeat of highlights from the show for the curtain calls so reminiscent of what Ken Ludwig did for "Lend Me a Tenor."

Calarco and his cast have developed strong mannerisms, expressions and postures for each of the characters at every moment on the stage and each of the designers add to the fun. Anne Kennedy's costumes include a blue fox for the heroine that is dyed the brightest of blues. James Kronzer's scenic design has a giant cutout of a toilet that is treated as an object of adoration. Tony Angelini includes in his sound design an echo effect that makes the "Evita" parody spot on, and property designer Cathie Gayer comes up with a bug spray can used to spoof all those musicals that rely on stage fog and mist.

Of special note is the choreography of Karma Camp. The Broadway choreographer was John Carrafa who was nominated for a Tony Award for his work. Camp doesn't imitate his work but brings an equally witty and inventive touch to the piece. Her staging of Gartshore and Driscoll's intertwining for "Follow Your Heart" is inspired. She does repeat a bit of the "Les Miserables" parody that Carrafa nailed in the original but there wasn't much room to change things without doing damage to the scene, as the entire company replicates the original "Les Miz" forward/backward steps with a waving mop in the background.

Calarco's staging on Kronzer's deep platform set uses all the space available but with careful attention to the demands of the show and the capabilities of the cast. He has Christopher Bloch, whose voice can fill the hall, begin one number seated at the far end of the hall, but he always has Schmidt, who speaks louder than he sings, delivering his songs from down front.

All in all, this is a production to be treasured and certainly not to be missed.

WHERE AND WHEN: "Urinetown" plays Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.,Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m. at Signature Theatre, 3806 South Four Mile Run through Oct. 2. Tickets are $31-$55. Call 800-955-5566 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.

Brad Hathaway has covered theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.