Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Yeast Nation (The Triumph of Life)
New Line Theatre
Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's reviews of Romeo and Juliet and Spinning Jenny

The Cast of Yeast Nation
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
Forget everything I ever said about "darkness" and "anguish" and "the searing pain of the social outcast," when it comes to New Line Theatre. Wipe it from your mind. Forget that time I said company founder Scott Miller is an expert at channeling the hideous screams of the damned, from within our two-dimensional, circumscribed, everyday American life. Forget.

Okay, great, because New Line is testing its limits once again. But where March's Anything Goes was exceedingly dry, Yeast Nation is exceedingly wet. In fact, the Marcelle Theatre is suddenly under the sea, somewhere between Princess Ariel's watery kingdom, and SpongeBob Squarepants' Bikini Bottom. It's a bright, colorful, steamy, bubbling cauldron (which may actually be just a small tide pool) randomly brought to life by a lightning strike 3,400,058,000 years ago—and now, in the December of his years, a weary old yeast king has imposed strict limits on eating and asexual reproduction, and even traveling outside the colony, as their supply of nutritious salt crystals dwindles to an alarmingly low level. And rebellion is imminent.

But it's a big goofy summer musical, delightfully performed, full of silly pastiche song and dance, that's somehow just a little too snarky and ironic for the Muny Opera. Yeast Nation (The Triumph of Life), which premiered in 2007 in Juneau, Alaska, was written by Mark Hollmann (Belleville East, 1981) and Greg Kotis (high school unknown). They previously co-authored the struck-by-lightning 2001 musical Urinetown, which likewise hinges on an environmental crisis. And there's just enough story and comical intrigue here to keep it all together, between the terrific vocal performances of the usual New Line suspects and some great new faces, too. Come for the nonsense, stay for the soaring musical artistry.

The early songs seem inspired by Disney stage musicals, beginning with "Hear the Song," ushering in the cast with a delightful faux-majesty, swinging and swaying as if it were "The Circle of Life." Later, as with any spoofy good time, humor (and salt crystals) must be mined elsewhere. And there's the birth of scat singing and a lot of tributes to Motown and do-wop songs—which, admittedly, is not at all an original concept anymore. But you haven't heard Motown and do-wop spoofs till you've heard them in the swoon-worthy richness of a New Line show.

Meanwhile, the story uplifts the basic tenants of "bad science fiction," a sub-genre that's long threatened to conquer its progenitor. But it's bad science fiction on an adorable, socially conscious, derivative/tributary plane, lavishly uplifted by the work of music director Sarah Nelson and (I'm guessing) the bubbly wit of Mike Dowdy-Windsor, who again shares overall directing credits with Mr. Miller here. Yeast Nation lacks the stark brilliance of Urinetown, but it throws off the shackles of repression, in favor of social (and evolutionary) progress, and we have a big fun time doing it. It's a fine way of to kick-off the summer.

Zachary Allen Farmer is dour and glowering as the palsied, august single-celled ruler; Sarah Gene Dowling shows comedic ferocity as the imposing, mystical seer; and Grace Langford is terrific as the scheming royal sister. Micheal Lowe is a great new find as the prime minister, and Dominic Dowdy-Windsor sings amazingly (as do they all, really) as the first-born eukaryote of Jan-the-Elder. And, being single-celled yeasts, they're all named Jan.

Yeast Nation (The Triumph of Life), through June 23, 2018, at the Marcelle Theatre, a couple of blocks east of Powell Symphony Hall, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive (a short block west of Compton, with a secure parking lot), St. Louis MO. For more information visit

The Players:
Jan-the-Unnamed: Sarah Gene Dowling
Jan-the-Elder: Zachary Allen Farmer
Jan-the-Second-Oldest: Dominic Dowdy-Windsor
Jan-the-Sly: Grace Langford
Jan-the-Wise: Micheal Lowe
Jan-the-Sweet: Larissa White
Jan-the-Wretched: Keith Thompson
Jan-the-Famished: Janelle Gilreath
Jan-the-Youngest: Colin Dowd
The New One: Lex Ronan
Yeast Chorus: Colin Dowd, Evan Fornachon, Brittany Kohl Hester, Eleanor Humphrey, Bradley Rohlf, Lex Ronan, Keith Thompson

The New Line Band:
Conductor/Piano: Sarah Nelson
Guitar: Aaron Brown
Bass/Guitar: Jake Heberlie
Percussion: Clancy Newell
Keyboard/Guitar: Jake Stergos

The Artistic Staff:
Directors: Scott Miller, Mike Dowdy-Windsor
Music Director: Sarah Nelson
Stage Manager: Erin Goodenough
Scenic & Lighting Designer: Rob Lippert
Assistant Scenic Designer: Victoria Xu
Costume Designer: Sarah Porter
Sound Designer: Ryan Day
Props Master: Kimi Short
Volunteer Coordinator: Alison Helmer
Graphic Designer: Matt Reedy