Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Yeast Nation (the triumph of life)
American Theatre

Also see John's review of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Richard's review of Fake

Andrew Keltz, Melanie Brezill, Barbara Robertson, Joseph Anthony Foronda
With this follow-up to Urinetown, their Tony-award-winning surprise hit of 2001 that transferred from the New York International Fringe Festival to a two-year-plus Broadway run, Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann have created a show that, for all its thematic commonality with the earlier show, looks nothing like it. Like Urinetown, it's a parable about the consequences of a society depleting its resources, but unlike the earlier show's look into the future, Yeast Nation looks to the past—the very, very distant past—with its story of the first life forms of earth. All of the characters are single cell organisms living in the primordial soup of earth in its earliest pre-historic era. The story—the Earth's first story, according to the narrator played by Barbara Robertson—picks up after this nation of yeast cells has realized the Earth's supply of salt—their only source of nutrition—is finite and becoming depleted from overpopulation. Their leader, Jan the Elder (Joseph Anthony Foronda), has outlawed reproduction so as to ration this source of food. (Recall that in Urinetown, a water shortage led society to charge fees for the privilege of peeing and that society declined after a rebellion ended that practice.)

Bookwriter-lyricist Kotis and composer-lyricist Hollmann have again told their story in a theatrical style of earlier times. Here, it's Greek tragedy while in Urinetown they aped Brechtian styles. Their plot—of the sort Shakespeare would happily have stolen from the classics—concerns the intrigues of the royal family. Jan the Elder's first-born son Jan the Second (Andrew Keltz) is heir to the throne but his destiny is threatened when he falls in love with Jan the Sweet (Melanie Brezill). You see, all the cells are named Jan, but frequently referenced by their distinguishing descriptor. Jan the Sweet's father (Bernard Balbot) has been executed for venturing from the bottom of the ocean up to the surface. Jan the Second's sister (Sandie Rosa) sees an opportunity to seize the throne for herself, with the help of a duplicitous advisor (Phil Ridarelli). Commentary throughout is provided by a Greek chorus of cells.

As visualized by costume designer Paul Spadone, the organisms are all garbed in greenish rubber ponchos to suggest their membranes, with a bulbous "nucleus" underneath. Walt Spangler's multi-level set places the action on platforms and moveable stairways while Jesse Klug's lighting design features twinkling red stars above to suggest the pinkish hue of Earth's surface at that time. Hollmann's score sets the action to a mixture of familiar genres. The stunning opening number, "Hear the Song," sets medieval-sounding harmonies to a rock-like beat, and choreographer Tommy Rapley has the cast moving in threateningly in unison like a Greek chorus. The 19-song score covers a variety of genres from rock to disco and gospel, all accessible and reasonably catchy. Hollmann and Kotis' book gives the dialogue its own style of language—residing somewhere between classical and clinical. An example: to express confusion, one of the characters decries "this is beyond my reference level!" The writers can't resist a little presentational and referential commentary acknowledging that this is a musical theater ("bio-historical musical theater at that") but they keep it to a minimum.

Director P.J. Paparelli and cast have staged this new piece very slickly and confidently. The assured singing and comic acting of the cast are a delight. Especially impressive is Foronda as the leader whose strength is belied by his befuddlement as he is confronted with new information about the world above the ocean's floor. Rosa and Ridarelli are deliciously villainous while Brezill and Keltz as the world's first lovers grow from an initial naiveté to a greater toughness and wisdom. Barbara Robertson's narrator, the blind Jan the Unnamed is deadpan serious with her tongue firmly in cheek throughout. Paparelli's tone, balancing classicism with wry humor, is always on the mark and he and the full cast deliver the musical comedy goods as well in this visually inventive production.

Admittedly, it takes a bit of work to get initiated into Yeast Nation's pre-historic world. Hollmann and Kotis' book lays out their premise pretty clearly, but it takes some exposition and you may remember what Urinetown said about the dangers of that. They make the point that greed, gluttony and conformity have been around forever—a fairly obvious point that they didn't need to elucidate so literally at the end. Overall, it's a good time that serious fans of musical theatre will enjoy for its balance of innovation and familiarity. As a mainstream show, a la Urinetown, it may be a tough sell for a wide audience.

Yeast Nation has been extended through November 8, 2009 at the American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St., Chicago. For reservations or further information, call 773-929-1031 or visit

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson

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