Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Yeast Nation is a satirical tale about earth's first life formssimple yeastand their struggle to survive. The characters, individual yeast cells, take on human personalities and situations as they form a society and deal with the challenge of a limited food supplysalt. Their society is ruled by the first ever yeast, Jan-the-Elder, and there are many parallels to early Judeo-Christian biblical stories, including the adherence to the "strictures," and the rebellion and corruption that sometimes followed. The show premiered in 2004 and was featured as part of the 2011 New York International Fringe Festival. However, it has had relatively few productions since.
Like Urinetown, Yeast Nation is the work of Tony Award winners Mark Hollmann (music and lyrics) and Greg Kotis (book and lyrics). Those familiar with Urinetown will recognize many, many parallels to that show in Yeast Nation. There are various characters, plot twists, and theatrical conventions that match up one for one. The use of witty narration, over-the-top emotions, and a generally absurd story told with fervent seriousness are all shared characteristics of the two musicals. There's much delight to be felt identifying the attributes within Urinetown as one experiences Yeast Nation for the first time.
Even for those new to these writers, Yeast Nation provides many universal themes (told through the very funny lens of yeast), droll humor, witty lyrics, and tuneful songs. Though this story isn't quite as interesting or detailed as that of Urinetown, and though its songs are as memorable, Yeast Nation is a solid but somewhat abstract piece in its own right. There are some "old English" language choices in the dialogue that work surprisingly well for this odd setting, and the rock/pop score includes the jazzy "Little Sister," "Burning Soul," "You're Not the Yeast You Used to Be," the aptly named "Let Us Rise," and "The World Won't Wait."
At CCM, director and choreographer Vincent DeGeorge perfectly captures the high stakes, absurdist tone of the piece, with his actors playing it straight and letting the silliness in the writing come through (including a quite funny use of sign language). He uses the space very well, and includes many subtle nods to Urinetown. The movement and dancing are unique and give the yeast characters personality while conveying the simple and shared purpose they have. Henry Lewers leads a great sounding five-piece band.
The uniformly strong cast provide some impressive singing, including some splendid choral work, and all provide fierce performances throughout. As Jan-the-Unnamed, Anya Axel provides well-suited narration, while Eli Mayer puts his booming voice to excellent use as Jan-the-Elder, the ruler of this yeast nation. Erich Schleck (Jan-the-Wise) and Delaney Guyer (Jan-the-Sly) play the antagonists, seeking to grab power, and are deliciously devilish in their roles. John Collins (Jan-the-Second-Oldest) and Bailee Endebrock (Jan-the-Sweet) show off outstanding vocals as the potential young lovers (though it's an odd concept in the yeast world). Jamie Goodson (Jan-the-Famished) gets lots of laughs out of a smaller role in large part to her non-verbal talents, and Veronica Stern (The New One), Kurtis Brown (Jan-the Wretched), and Elijah King (Jan-the-Youngest) also do well in support.
The white costumes and white/grey/silver set pieces provide an apt monochromatic design for the show. Scenic designer Joshua E. Gallagher defines the performance space with hung fabric which is later used effectively as props as they are torn off. A ladder and a few module pieces (a few with some splashes of color) are all that is needed elsewise. The lighting by Nicholas Smith provides additional color, and the reflections off of several suspended mirrored disco balls are also effective.
This may be your only chance ever to see Yeast Nation performed locally, and it is an almost perfect production. The ridiculousness of the piece might not be for everyone, and a knowledge of Urinetown by the same creators is an added bonus, but those able to procure a ticket for this free production should consider themselves lucky.
Yeast Nation (The Triumph of Life), through April 6, 2019, continues at Cohen Family Studio Theater, "W Corry St and Jefferson Ave, Cincinnati OH. For more information, visit www.ccm.uc.edu.