Story: It’s not that easy being yeast. Life is tough enough in 3,000,458,000 BC, when Earth’s first life form is just trying to survive, consuming any salt it might find on the ocean floor.
And yet, here a subterranean society exists with its own set of rules, hierarchies and classes of subjects who struggle daily for their very survival. Jan-the-Elder rules with a firm fist, or whatever appendages yeasts have.
Jan-the-Second-Oldest faithfully follows the dictates of his father, but his sister Jan-the-Sly isn’t so honorable. She is scheming to take over the kingdom. Can she convince the ruler’s right-hand yeast, Jan-the-Wise, to join her in her quest?
When Jan-the-Wretched is executed for some trumped-up crimes against the yeast society, Jan-the-Second-Oldest becomes affected by the plight of Jan-the-Wretched’s daughter, Jan-the-Sweet. She seeks justice for her wrongly accused father and Jan-the-Second-Oldest is right there with her. Another yeast, Jan-the-Famished, simply wants to find enough salt to keep yeasting.
While the blind soothsayer, Jan-the-Unnamed, moves around making sundry foreboding predictions about this yeastian society, Jan-the-Second-Oldest defies his father and makes his way to the surface which the yeasts are forbidden to see. The next thing you know, there’s a new life form in the midst of the yeasts.
Can all of these yeasts learn to live together? Can the powerful among them prevent progress and evolution from occurring? Will they welcome or repulse some new feeling called love? Will they find a brave new world or the same old, same old? Stay tuned.
Highlights: New Line Theatre, which staged Urinetown in 2007, becomes just the fifth theater in the country to mount a production of the follow-up work by Urinetown creators Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis. It’s something doubtless unlike anything most audience members have ever seen, albeit with its own quirky charm.
Other Info: Yeast Nation was first produced at the Perseverance Theatre in Juneau in 2007, followed by the American Theater Company in Chicago in 2009, the New York International Fringe Festival in 2011 and the Ray of Light Theatre in San Francisco in 2014. Throughout the years, Hollman and Kotis have continued to fine-tune their two-act comedy musical.
New Line’s presentation gets you right into the action with Rob Lippert’s fascinating scenic design. It’s a dazzling whirl of kaleidoscopic colors and splashy shapes set upon a stone foundation, with bubbles percolating up through a portal as well as popping along in a background screen. Lippert’s lighting accentuates the festive fauna look.
All of that is complemented richly by Sarah Porter’s tie-dyed costumes, giving the players a tastefully tattered appearance which you might expect yeast to favor, along with expressive makeup that highlights the free-spirited look. Props master Kimi Short enhances the style with some amusing accoutrements such as yummy blocks of salt, while Ryan Day adds appropriately offbeat sound effects.
Directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor and their performers bring out the zany silliness of the concept, which Miller describes in program notes as “the story is presented as straight-faced, classical tragedy, with obvious, intentional parallels to both Antigone and Macbeth.”
So, while the characters look different, their grappling with emerging emotions presents them as harbingers of the creatures to follow them through the next few billion years. As Miller further notes, “What may be the funniest aspect of this epic, twisted fable is that some of the weirdest details of our story are biologically accurate,” making Yeast Nation a ‘bio-historical musical.’
Hollman wrote the music, Kotis penned the book and the two collaborated on the show’s lyrics, which features orchestrations by John Gerdes. For the most part, the tunes are pleasant if also forgettable, but they’re well served by the New Line band, which is led by conductor Sarah Nelson.
Pianist Nelson is joined by guitarist Aaron Brown, Jake Heberlie on bass and guitar, percussionist Clancy Newell and keyboardist/guitarist Jake Stergos. They’re artfully seated at the rear of the stage, tucked inside Lippert’s set.
The cast includes Zachary Allen Farmer as the iron-fisted but not intractable Jan-the-Elder and Sarah Gene Dowling as the meandering prophet of sorts Jan-the-Unnamed. Dominic Dowdy-Windsor and Larissa White make for a fair romantic couple as Jan-the-Second-Oldest and Jan-the-Sweet, respectively, while Micheal Lowe shows the good nature and difficult political position of Jan-the-Wise.
Grace Langford makes the most of the villainous part of Jan-the-Sly and Jennelle Gilreath has her share of comic moments as Jan-the-Famished. Keith Thompson has fun as the ill-fated Jan-the-Wretched, Colin Dowd plays upstart Jan-the-Youngest and Lex Ronan brings out the ominous aspects of Porter’s furry costumes for The New One.
The Yeast Chorus cavorting about the stage to sundry wacky dances includes Evan Fornachon, Brittany Kohl Hester, Eleanor Humphrey and Bradley Rohlf as well as Dowd, Ronan and Thompson.
Yeast Nation hasn't been as successful a clever send-up of society as Urinetown is. New Line’s production, however, has fun stretching out the show’s central joke, showing how far humanity has come and how far it may yet need to advance.
Musical: Yeast Nation: The Triumph of Life
Company: New Line Theatre
Venue: Marcelle Theater, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive
Dates: June 7, 8, 9, 14, 15, 16, 21, 22, 23
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jill Ritter Lindberg