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Toilet humor set for Tokyo theater

by Nobuko Tanaka

The title may be cheesy, but there’s plenty that’s memorable about the content of this politically astute musical, too.

After opening in a small New York theater in 2001, “Urinetown” soon became such a hit that it was snapped up by Broadway producers and booked into the Henry Miller Theatre there. After its Sept. 13 opening night was postponed until the 20th due to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, this people-power musical went on to scoop three Tonys in 2002 — for Best Director, Best Original Score and Best Book of a Musical — and maintain its hit Broadway run until 2004.

Written by N.Y.-based playwright Greg Kotis, the idea for the work came from his own experience as a backpacker in Paris, where he found himself often holding out on calls of nature to save the public-toilet tolls — a fundamentally unjust situation to be put in, he thought.

Extrapolating just a little from there, Kotis sets his tale in the near future, when serious water shortages have become the norm. Citing conservation, the law then states that everyone must only use public pay-toilets. This, of course, becomes a huge financial burden on poor people — especially as the police have sold the rights to operate all pay-toilets to a monopoly corporate called UGC and anyone found taking a leak, or worse, outside of one of their facilities is arrested, never to be seen again.

Can the musical’s young hero, Binbo (Yusuke Toyama) — a “free toilets” campaigner — and his girlfriend, Hoppy (Haruko Sekiya), create a toilet utopia for all? This rock musical with a live band playing keeps audiences guessing right to the end.

“Urinetown,” staged at Suginami Ward’s new Za Koenji Public Theatre, is more than just another glitzy production imported from the United States. The theater appointed the leading underground theater Ryuzanji Company, founded by Sho Ryuzanji in 1984, specifically to present a “made-in-Japan musical” as its debut show with ticket price set at ¥4,500 (¥3,000 for students).

This local dimension hits audiences as soon as they arrive at the open, street-level entrance to Za Koenjir, where friendly cast members in Nazi-style uniforms guide them to their seats. Then, as the fast action begins on the two-story set — and throughout the auditorium — it’s immediately clear how well the top contemporary dramatist Yoji Sakate has played his part by “Japanizing” the all-American script to furnish it with a wealth of Japan-based satirical gems.

The director Ryuzanji said in a news conference that he believes theater is a “bumping place” for different kinds of people as well as for history and society, and that with this work he wanted to “open some windows” on the possibilities for Japanese musicals. The result is chaotic — but very exciting — by design. “Urinetown” offers a great opportunity for fans of musicals and newbies, too, to enjoy this high-quality entertainment at an affordable price.

“Urinetown” runs till June 28 at Za Koenji Public Theatre, a 3-minute walk from JR Koenji Station. For more information, visit www.ryuzanji.com