Sunday, August 14, 2011

FRINGE: Yeast Nation

Urinetown is considered the most successful show to come out of the Fringe Festival. The musical opened on Broadway in 2001 and won Tony Awards for best book, score, and direction of a musical. Greg Kotis (book, lyrics) and Mark Hollmann (music, lyrics) return to Fringe with Yeast Nation (The Triumph of Life) and sold out the run before the first performance. But I doubt that Yeast Nation will have the same trajectory as Urinetown.

If expectations weren't so high for Yeast Nation, it would be another amusing, quirky Fringe show, but it's hard not to make comparisons to Urinetown as it is so similar in style and themes. The musical takes place in 3,000,458,000 BC at the bottom of the primordial sea. Although the characters are yeast, the story, which involves power struggles and love against the odds, is familiar. Jan the Elder (George McDaniel)--if you know Urinetown, think of him as Caldwell B. Cladwell--enforces strict rules about reproduction, what the yeast can eat, and where they can go. But his son Jan the Second (Erik Altemus) falls in love with Jan the Sweet (Emily Tarpey) and starts to question his father. The show even has an Officer Lockstock and Little Sally in the form of Jan the Unnamed (Harriet Harris) and a precocious young boy, well yeast (Charlie Plummer), who narrate and break the fourth wall.

Yeast Nation feels long at two-and-a-half hours, but overall the strong ensemble keep energy and entertainment levels up when the show begins to drag. Standouts in the cast include Joy Suprano as Jan the Wise and Jan the Famished (Jennifer Blood), whose duet is a highlight of the show.

The score was catchy, but because Urinetown is one of the funniest musicals I've ever seen, I was expecting to laugh a lot more at the lyrics. Clearly, Kotis and Hollmann have a lot of talent, and I would love to see something completely different from them. Not that I mind musicals with bad titles or being told that my way of living is unsustainable.

Photo from left to right: Manu Narayan, Emily Tarpey, and Erik Altemus
Photo credit: Jay Sullivan

1 comment:

Gil said...

I'm surprised at how positive some of the other reviews have been for this.

Aside from how many plot points and character archetypes are direct parallels from Urinetown, the real issue is that the show simply isn't very funny. Occasionally you hear a small smattering of people laughing (often in anticipation of a joke that usually isn't there), but that's usually it.

The premise is ridiculous, but then gets boring real fast when it seems to try to take itself on the serious side. Aside from one or two exceptions, the songs aren't particularly humorous. And the book tries to focus not on comedy but on making you care about characters that by definition you could never care about.

I'd say the show has promise if this wasn't its third run. It's possible that it needs a bit of a stronger direction. Shame, I really wanted to like this. The cast was pretty great.