Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Yeast Nation (The Triumph of Life)
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 agoand 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 songswhich, 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 www.newlinetheatre.com.
The New Line Band:
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