By Lynn Venhaus
An earnest, energetic ensemble is committed to “Yeast Nation,” a weird and bloated bio-historical musical from the Tony-winning duo who brought us the original and inventive “Urinetown.”
Basically, 20 minutes of a one-joke plot extended over two acts (!), “Yeast Nation” benefits from a clever score that is superior to the thin story material, and the significant vocal talents of an enthusiastic cast help.
Mark Hollmann, a Fairview Heights native, wrote the music and lyrics, while Greg Kotis wrote the lyrics and book. The musical, with the subtitle “The Triumph of Life,” opened in 2007.
Co-director Scott Miller calls the creative pair “mad geniuses.” Fair enough.
Scientifically sound, though, the smart and perky songs indicate that Kotis and Hollmann have a flair for satirical comedy and their lyrical wordplay is impressive.
However, given their comedy improvisation background, it’s disappointing that the indulgent story is like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch that goes on far too long and doesn’t know how to end. It feels like a 1970s performance-artist free-for-all that needed to be tightened up in workshops.
Starting on the bottom of the primordial sea three billion years ago, the single-cell yeasts live on salt and crave a better future. In their colony ruled by a tyrannical leader — of course it’s New Line Theatre stalwart Zachary Allen Farmer as Jan-the-Elder, there is disharmony and division.
These yeasts exhibit the same tendencies as human beings would, in a power-play parody of Greek tragedies like “Antigone” and Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”
The messages seem to be embrace the goo, and love is the reason for living. Lots o’ songs with “love” in the title, which is not a bad thing.
One of the running gags is that everyone is named Jan (pronounced “YAHN”). This is indeed a thin joke, as many of the precious conceits are.
Both Miller and co-director Mike Dowdy-Windsor appear to have great affection for the peculiar show, and their steadfast allegiance to the offbeat is admirable. They believe, which transfers to the ensemble’s overall sincerity.
Dynamic co-stars Larissa White and Dominic Dowdy-Windsor portray the young forbidden lovers, Jan-the-Sweet and Jan-the-Second-Oldest. Their exceptional voices harmonize well in such duets as “Burnin’ Soul,” “Let Us Rise” and “You’re Not the Yeast You Used to Be.”
I always enjoy hearing both performers sing separately, and their first pairing is fortuitous. The radiant White plays a feisty female defending her father’s honor and the right to be independent while conflicted Dowdy-Windsor must be the noble heir apparent transformed by love, carving his own path.
Her father, Jan-the-Wretched, has an unfortunate demise, but performer Keith Thompson lives on as a chorus member.
Dowdy-Windsor is gaining in confidence with every appearance on the New Line stage, and is very much at home in the hero role, even with a cobalt-blue glitter beard. He’s terrific in “I’ll Change the World Around Her.”
Their strengths enable us to care about them, despite such a ho-hum story, and they capably lead the penultimate “Life Goes On” and the finale, “The World Won’t Wait.”
Also standing out are newcomers Micheal Lowe as the ruler’s ambitious son Jan-the-Wise and Jennelle Gilreath as the pregnant Jan-the-Famished. Lowe duets with White in “Liar” and Grace Langford in “Don’t Be a Traitor to Love.”
The beautifully-voiced Langford is sadly miscast as Jan-the-Sly, a conniving mean girl with a single bitch-face expression. She isn’t convincing as the villainess masterminding a coup over her brothers.
Live-wire Lex Ronan must wear a Muppet-like pink shag carpet as The New One, and alas, this is a rather under-developed role. She fares best in “Me Good.”
As the blind over-the-top soothsayer Jan-the-Unnamed, Sarah Gene Dowling mugs in a role that starts at 11 and goes up from there.
There appears to be little in-jokes that we’re not privy to, and this play becomes draggy and tedious despite this cast giving their all.
That they seem to be having a lot of fun is a plus. The group numbers “Doom! Love! Doom!” and “Look at What Love Made Me Do” showcase robust new chorus performers Eleanor Humphrey, Brittany Kohl Hester and Bradley Rohlf.
As a sight gag, a game Colin Dowd is funny as Jan-the-Youngest, a very tall, gangly infant.
The music is deceptively difficult, and music director Sarah Nelson deftly conducts a tight combo that includes Aaron Brown on guitar, Jake Heberlie on bass, Clancy Newell on percussion, and Jake Stergos on keyboard and guitar. Nelson also plays keyboard. She maintains a brisk pace, with the heavy load of 10 songs in each act.
Resourceful costume designer Sarah Porter has outfitted the cast in playful tie-dye outfits that have pockets for an explosion of neon ping-pong balls when the yeasts expire.
Adding to the rag-tag feel is bright glitter galore, used in every conceivable way, along with face and body painting, too.
The looks and outfits are effective, as is scenic designer Rob Lippert’s minimalist set of rocks and Styrofoam pool noodles shaped as ocean plants.
The set enables the cast to move nimbly, swiftly scurrying up and down the fake rock slabs.
Some of the characters who die come back to life, which is very confusing.
Biology is fascinating, but this is a strange foray into musical comedy. You either go with the flow or find it a laborious exercise. I would have preferred a concert version, and the music is indeed the standout, presented by very talented performers.