Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’d know that the biggest show of Fringe 2011 is Yeast Nation. Not familiar? Let me get you up to speed. A long time ago in a Fringe world of yore, the little musical that could was produced. The catchy titled show was called Urinetown and it went on to be nominated for that little thing known as the Tony Award. Now the duo that brought you that piece of theatrical brilliance is back to Fringe with Yeast Nation. As the biggest and most hyped show of the season, the judging is at a much different level.
Now the biggest question when discussing this musical is how it relates to Urinetown. Thematically, it mirrors it quite nicely and fits the mold of a fun prequel. If it’s meant to not be a prequel but a stand-alone piece, then well, you can call Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman something of a one trick pony. So I’m going to go forward believing it officially is a prequel. While I could write a term paper on the comparisons of the two, which could just be boring, so I’ll try to stick to what Yeast Nation brought, but I'm sure that won't last long. With that being said, let’s go back in time. Way back to the very first life forms. Yes, that’s correct. The characters in this musical are singing, dancing, and soon to be emoting yeasts. Like it’s predecessor, Yeast Nation makes us well aware that the fourth wall is barely, if ever there. We get a narrator in the form of the hilarious and talented Harriet Harris playing Jan the Unnamed who just so happens to be able to have knowledge of the future despite being blind. Jan the Unnamed leads an ensemble of Yeasts (all of whom are named Jan), including her little sidekick Jan, played by the cute Charlie Plummer, who continues to interrupt her story. Sound familiar? Believe me, Harris and Plummer are good, but in no way do they compare to the brilliant characters of the now iconic Officer Lockstock and Little Sally. With an opening number that leads us into the world of the yeasts, we are introduced to the typical stock characters: a decaying king, his way too hot and beautiful son who’s next in line, the spiteful and jealous sibling who’s not, the wise right hand man, and of course the love interest who’s there to mess with the head of the next in line. Like Urinetown, the turmoil that thrusts the plot into full speed is caused by the untimely defiance by the parent of one of our lovers. This time it’s Jan the Wretched, played by Urinetown vet Rick Crom, who just wants to consume more salt. Well our king just won’t have it, because the salt is beginning to run low and how dare anyone stand up to him, so Wretched is killed. Since yeasts don’t have blood, we have a funny little bit where jelly, in the form of green and yellow confetti from a deliberately visible confetti cannon, is playfully burst. Death brings mourning to Jan the Sweet just as everyone in Yeast Nation learns of a newfound emotion, love. Jan the Second, who happens to already posses a heart, offers his condolences to Jan the Sweet, in the form of salt, and like a spark, they start to fall in love. Jan the Sweet initially rejects Second until he defies the strictures his father put forth and rises to the surface and returns with muck, an even newer life form. Second literally force-feeds Sweet who takes a liking to muck, and Second. Like a classic musical, subplots run ramped. Jan the Sly, the sister of Jan the Second, realizes that she is not in line to gain the thrown if Jan the Eldest loses his membrane, so she employs Jan the Wise to take part in her dastardly plan to overthrow Eldest and kill Second. And the only way to do so is to frame the vulnerable Sweet and goody two shoes Second. How? Telling Eldest of the muck Second committed at the jubilee of sameness, a party in commemoration of Wretched’s death. But just as the jubilee is about to get underway, Second reveals he has given birth to a new life form after consuming muck. The New One, played by Kimiko Glenn who channels her inner Gollum, appears and causes some peaceful chaos.
While the script was not top notch, the production was. This is not your average Fringe show. This production had the resources needed to make it a true production. Adam Koch’s brilliant set combined perfectly with K.J. Hardy’s transformative lights truly brought us to the bottom of the sea. Regrettably David Kaley’s costumes seemed quite lost and possibly in the wrong production. If you walked in late and didn’t receive the instructions of the location of the play, you would have thought you were watching a Greek play. When given the freedom of creating the human form of Yeast, there is so much possibility and freedom. Yet most of the cast looked as if they were coming back from a toga party at a frat house. The freeflowing costumes were yeasty, but when they happen to be white and some actors have Grecian style headbands and sandals, our minds see something else. Jan the Unnamed’s costume seemed to be the only thing that was right in the yeast world. Similarly, the freedom of creating a yeast on the page is unbound. Especially when casting an ensemble of vary shape and color. There were touches of modern stereotypes in certain characters. For example, if Wise, who was played by the very funny Manu Narayan, had been played up using into the stereotypical Indian accent, breaking into straight English would have been comic genius. Or if Second was written as the quintessential surfer dude throughout instead of going back and forth, his dialogue would have been much funnier. Kotis had the power to give voice to yeast like Disney gives voice to their talking animals in animated films. Freedom. There is so much more available that didn’t even scratch the surface.
As far as the performances, the cast was superb. Harriet Harris and Manu Narayan were finely cast. They were just right for their parts and it’s a bit hard to think of anyone else trying to fill their shoes. Emily Tarpey did the best she could with her Hope Cladwell wannabe despite the character being a tad forgettable. The chorus of Jans deserve a shout out for their fine, enjoyable work. The weakest link within the cast was Jennifer Blood as Jan the Famished, but it may not have been entirely her fault. The character is one of the most important to the plot, yet the writing may not have been all there. And anyone would look weak when you have to share the stage with the show stopping, scene stealing, overall wondrous Joy Suprano. Like Harris and Narayan, she is irreplaceable. She has an impeccable voice and some of the best comedic timing I’ve seen on stage. It’s always more fun to play a villain, and she proved it. Suprano’s character may have been the butt of “the forgotten one” jokes, but believe me, her performance is not. The other star turn in Yeast Nation came in the form of future Broadway leading man Erik Altemus. Altemus exudes charm and likeability, the requirements of being a successful romantic lead, commanding the stage the very second he touched it. He has a beautiful voice that elevated the music greatly. Altemus is the next generation of star, I promise you that. Watch out Aaron Tveit, you’ve got some stiff competition on your heels!
It’s easy to judge Yeast Nation on a level higher than any other production in the festival because the hype has been behind it and the future of the play is inevitable. I will most definitely see the next incarnation of the play, I just hope some serious work happens before hand.