Regional Reviews: San Francisco
A Challenging Production of Yeast Nation
Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, who wrote the wonderful Urinetown, decided to write this musical after seeing a Greek production of Antigone at a Transylvanian theatre festival. Kotis thought says he thought, "I wonder what the oldest story is," and came up with the idea of presenting a musical from a very, very distant past with the story of the first life forms on earth.
Yeast Nation still looks like a work in progress even though it was the sensation of the New York Fridge Festival of 2011. There have been productions of this "bio-historical musical" in Juneau, Alaska in 2007 and Chicago's American Theatre Company in 2009. The music is pop rock and the story is that of salt-eating yeasts, the only living creatures on our water-covered planet in the year 3,000,458,000 BC. The composer and lyricist have continued to fiddle, futz, cut, restore and add to the opening act. Much of the first act music is very loud, repetitive pop music while most of the songs in the second act are more melodic, making the evening worthwhile.
The show does have a weird plot. The self-effacing yeast society remains on the ocean floor, not replicating but just standing immobile. Jan-the-Wise (Mischa Stephens) celebrates the virtue of staying put while his rival Jan-the-Second-Oldest (Kevin Singer) contends for change and freedom to enlarge the ranks. There is an enticement to branch out that leads some yeast to rise to the top of the ocean to feed, and before long a new life form arrives. The New One (Mary Kalita) talks like a monster from the Frankenstein movies and looks like an acrobat from Cirque du Soleil.
Director and Ray of Light Artistic Director Jason Hoover has assembled a large cast of excellent singers with an amazing set design of large separate panels of yeast by Angrette McCloskey in the background, with incredible twinkling lights by Joe D'Emilio. Costumes by Amanda Lee Angott are imaginative; the characters look like Druids in floating white outfits, each equipped with a large disc of small lights centered at midriff. These lights are constantly changing with the mood of the show. Dane Paul Andres' choreography is basic, which is fitting for the beginning of life forms.
Heather Orth is outstanding as the blind, witchy seer Jan-the-Unnamed. She has a vibrant voice on "You Don't Know a Thing About Love" and "Love Equals Pain" in the second act. Danny Cozart with his dramatic baritone voice is first rate as the tyrant Jan-the-Elder. His gives a great rendition of "You Are My Children" and "Let Us Rise." Mischa Stephens as Jan-the-Wise with his stunning tenor voice carries all of his songs, especially "Alone," "Stasis in the Membrane," and "Don't Be a Traitor to Love." Courtney Merrell as Jan-the-Sweet is appealing singing "You're Not the Yeast You Used to Be" and "Life Goes On." Mary Kalita gives a striking performance as The New One and strikingly sings "Me Good" and the reprise of "Let Us Rise." Teresa Attridge as Jan-the-Sly gives a lively performance as she belts out "Little Sister" and "Don't Be a Traitor to Love." Roy Eikleberry, David Glazer, Juliana Lustenader and Kevin Singer, along with the chorus consisting of Joshua Belt, Jesse Cortez, Celia Jones, Lizzie Moss, Vanessa Vazquez and Ted Zoldan, also merit mention with their harmoniously energizing voices. Ben Prince conducts the five-piece orchestra that is an asset to this energetic musical.