nytheatre.com review by Eric Winick
August 20, 2007
When Urinetown trod the boards a few years back, I saw it not once but twice. This was unusual, as I never get to see shows on Broadway. Okay, I should qualify that: I never usually want to see shows on Broadway. Where other musicals failed, however, Urinetown soared, a nightmare vision of a world gone ridiculously wrong, by authors who set out to, and succeeded at, skewering every musical theater cliché known to man.
Since that show's humble beginnings at the Present Company Theatorium, countless musicals in the same vein have stormed FringeNYC. Most come with grand expectations, outsized production values, and half the ingenuity that made Urinetown so memorable.
Slammer! bills itself as "a new women-in-prison musical" (begging the question, "What was the old women-in-prison musical?"), and it's everything you'd expect: the ball-busting warden, the good girl, the sleazy guard, the dykey inmates who shack up as a way to pass the time, and of course, the Mama Morton surrogate. The bare-bones plot hinges on the accidental incarceration of Tabitha (Merrill Grant), a straight arrow who's sent to the clink after someone (we never find out who) switches her suitcase with one loaded with drugs. She's immediately set upon by her fellow inmates, leered at by guard Smiley (Saverio Guerra), and coddled by kindly diabetic Reverend Mama (Sandra Reaves-Phillips), who warns, "Dere's some BAD people in 'dis place!"
This being a satirical musical, there's more at stake for the girls than the slave labor Smiley forces them to endure. The prison is bought out by a string of corporations, all of which attach their name to the facility ("New Horizon Industrial Strength Cleanser International Women's Prison"), then move it somewhere else. As the inmates struggle to make sense of their new homes and masters, Tabitha (whose case grows bleaker by the minute) devises a plot to serve her tormentors a bizarre form of frontier justice. If only she could find a decent pair of tap shoes.
All of this would make for good fun if authors Steve Adams and Chan Chandler had managed to write a tonally consistent script, lyrics that aren't baldly expositional, and music that doesn't evaporate on first listen. I wouldn't normally demand coherence from a show like this, but the fact is, precious little of Slammer! makes sense, and its wrap-up is bewildering. Under the direction of Rod Caspers and choreographer Ann Presley, the show plods along methodically, with little new to say about women, prison, women in prison, or corporate culture. Most problematic is the casting: while stage vets Guerra, Reaves-Phillips, and Lannyl Stephens struggle valiantly against the script's limitations, they're given little backup by a largely lifeless supporting cast. Among the inmates, only Ariela Morgenstern is given the chance to rise above stereotype.
Emblematic of Slammer!'s woes, and I think of this entire genre, is a scene towards the end of Act One in which Reverend Mama belts out a show-stopping number, "Along the Road." Naturally, the audience ate it up with a spoon, hooting and hollering, streaming into intermission all aflutter. It's the kind of moment that makes you want to forget how shoddy the rest of the show is. The fact is, no matter how high you raise the roof, there's no substitute for a smart script, music that challenges, and casting that brings home the bacon. Urinetown remains the gold standard.