Urine Luck at Santa Barbara High

By SBHS Forge Staff   |   April 26, 2018


by the SBHS Forge Staff

It’s a Monday morning, two weeks before opening night, and Otto Layman, the head of Santa Barbara High School (SBHS) Performing Arts, surveys a stage where an array of people and tasks occur simultaneously: students are painting or hanging lights under the guidance of lighting designer Mike Madden and technical director-co-set designer Jonathan Mitchell; costume designer Bonnie Lewis has trench coats, hats and boots for the Urinetown police laid out on the apron; musical director Jon Nathan is setting up band equipment in a loft 14 feet above the stage, and fog machines and moving set pieces are being tested. With the unlikeliest of musicals set to open Friday April 27, Urinetown, The Musical, is in full dizzying pre-production, and Mr. Layman’s 50th show as theater director is taking shape.

Josie Gillingham and Daniel Sabraw on stage in Urinetown, The Musical at SBHS this weekend and next (photo: Claire Fischer)

SBHS has a reputation for innovative sets, scaled to the space – an 800-seat-with-balcony theater that despite its size seems intimate and connected to the stage. “I think that’s a product of having grown up at the Ensemble Theatre during the ’80s and ‘90s,” Otto says, laughing. “I learned theater in a 142-seat theater where the audience was four feet away, and the set went from wall to wall. We learned to use every conceivable inch of space.”

As we look around, we can see that philosophy in an exponential fashion: from the stage right cheek and its bridge to Public Amenity Number 9 – “the poorest, filthiest urinal in the city” – to the enormous sewer tunnels below the orchestra center, and finally the towering building (literally: it reaches nearly to the 35-foot ceiling of the theater) of the Urine Good Company, the set does, in fact, use every square inch of space to create a world of glass and steel and brick.

Why Urinetown for his 50th show? “The title, obviously,” Layman says, laughing again. “It’s a running joke in the show, the things that can ruin a musical. Little Sally says, ‘Like bad subject matter. Or a bad title. That can ruin a show pretty good.’ Urinetown is a kind of parody of the over-wrought, ‘important’ musicals like Les Misérables, for instance, or The Three Penny Opera – musicals that are about ideas, that are emotional almost to the point of hysteria – but also musicals that mean to be something – political, or activist, for instance. Bottom line is that Urinetown is funny, and the music is great, there are a variety of great roles, and it’s relatively contemporary. Acting students want to do the musicals of their generation, and,” Otto says, “we try to stay young and involved.”

Urinetown was the surprise 2010 Tony Award winner, and with the trickle-down for theatrical rights from Broadway to high school being anywhere from eight to 15 years, it is a contemporary musical that fulfills the needs of high school artists to stay current.

“We’ve morphed over the years into a school that does primarily musical,” Layman says, “and that’s because, one, I think it is the most collaborative of theater genres, and two, I’ve been fortunate to be able to work with some of the greatest artists in the Santa Barbara musical community to give these students as professional an experience as possible. We have very few, if any, limits to what we can do here.”

Mr. Layman points out too that SBHS administration has always been pro-theater, pro-arts, and has actively pushed for a vibrant and contemporary art. Otto has been able to work with Dr. Nathan from the UCSB Music Department, for example, since Spamalot in 2013, and that has, he says, “broadened my musical world and taught me a lot.” Director Layman points out that he has developed friendships and collaborations “with the people who shaped our philosophy and style: a choreographer and artist like Christina McCarthy, who I’ve worked with since 2002, or a lighting designer like Mike Madden (since 2003.)”

Elvis Pagano, Bella Holland, Carter Beaudette, Cole Hansen, and Penny O’Mahoney in Urinetown, The Musical (photo: Claire Fischer)

SBHS has become the place for musical theater, having done 12 consecutive musicals over the last six years, whereas most schools will do just one “big” musical a year.

Urinetown, The Musical has many of the same faces on the production team, including costume designer Bonnie Thor, but also includes a new artist debuting her work in this production: Gianna Burright, whose lineage as dancer-choreographer extends from Nordhoff High School, to UCSB for undergraduate work (with McCarthy, among others), to London where she did her master’s studies. 

Urinetown, The Musical features a cast of 30 artists with big voices, along with the energy, passion, and risk-taking that have become hallmarks of SBHS theater. Among them are senior Lily Linz (Little Sally), juniors Elvis Pagano (the 4th wall-breaking narrator Lockstock), Bella Holland (Mrs. Pennywise), Drewes McFarling (Hot Blades Harry), Cole Hansen (Barrel), sophomores Josie Gillingham (Hope Cladwell), Logan Fleming (Little Becky Two Shoes),Carter Beaudette (the ostensible villain Mr. Cladwell), freshman Daniel Sabraw as Bobby Strong, the hero of the Resistance, and a talented, powerful ensemble of singers and dancers. 

Urinetown, The Musical plays April 27, 28, May 4 and 5 at 7 pm, with 2 pm matinee performances April 28, May 5 and 6. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students and seniors. For more info or to reserve tickets, go to sbhstheatre.com.


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