Playwright: Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann. At: American Theatre Company, 1909 W. Byron . Phone: 773-929-1031; $35-$40. Runs through: Oct. 18
The gathering of musical talent onstage at American Theatre Company is formidable. For the post-Alaska premiere of Yeast Nation, director PJ Paparelli has enlisted the help of some serious song-and-dance heavy-hitters: Among them, Joseph Anthony Foronda, ( who could show Jonathan Pryce a thing or two about engineering in Miss Saigon ) , and Barbara Robertson, ( who in addition to being a Shakespearean actor of no small accomplishments played Madame Morrible in Wicked. ) The musical's pedigree is similarly impressive: As has been much noted, Yeast Nation is the sophomore effort by Urinetown creators Greg Kotis ( book and lyrics ) and Mark Hollmann ( music and lyrics. )
But for all the undeniable charisma onstage and the proven gifts of its creators, Yeast Nation's charms are apt to prove elusive for many. The "bio-historical musical" about single-celled organisms floating ( and dancing ) in the primordial soup is at once innovative and alienating, shrill and silly, juvenile and satirically self-aware.
Dressed in fluorescent chartreuse rain ponchos ( A bigger costume budget would go a long way toward ridding the raingear of its Dollar Store aesthetic ) , the bottom-of-the-ocean dwelling Yeasts struggle with stasis and evolution as their food supply of ocean salts dwindles and they're forced to contemplate floating toward the light and edible muck at the top of their water world.
Theoretically, the trials of these mucus-filled micro-organisms can be taken as an allegory or a fable or both ( one Yeast points out as much in one of the show's many moments of meta-theatrics ) . With songs such as "Stasis is the Membrane" and "Let Us Rise," Kotis and Hollman illustrate the universal themes of this way B.C. story. This is a musical about bettering the world and oneself by daring to rebel against a destructive, myopic and tyrannically enforced status quo. Read more story below....
But despite the obvious overarching themes, there's no completely shaking Yeast factor of Yeast Nation. In the end, asking the audience empathize with life forms generally associated with infections and/or bread dough is a tough sell. As for us, we weren't buying it. Moreover, where Urinetown was smart and original, Yeast Nation is obvious and reductive. A rockish score blasting through muddy acoustics doesn't help. The sound design is loud rather than clear. Amplification does make for coherency: It only makes the garble of garbled words louder.
On the plus side of Yeast Nation is its sheer audaciousness. Not since the dancing scuba scene in Mama Mia have we seen an 11 o'clock number performed by a cast tricked out in Pepto-Bismal pink, tight-as-white-on-rice catsuits. Paul Spadone's costumesdespite the apparently rock bottom budgetare clever. Look carefully at those acid greenish ponchos and you can tell which Yeasts are old-timers and which are comparative youngsters. It's unfortunate that within those ponchos/membranes, there's little to anchor Yeast Nation emotionally.