In his opening-night curtain speech, American Theater Company artistic director P.J. Paparelli went on about what an enormous risk it was to premiere the new musical Yeast Nation (The Triumph of Life), by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann. And the local press has been echoing his claim for weeks. Sure, the oddball show about a colony of single-celled yeasts living in earth's primordial sea ain't Oklahoma! But especially in a town where audiences are used to wildly unconventional theater, it's laughable to suggest that an off-Loop company risks anything producing the newest work from the creators of Broadway sensation Urinetown. And anyway, isn't artistic risk the whole point of nonprofit theater? Paparelli touting his daring is sort of like a bus driver demanding a raise for learning how to shift gears.
The production does involve some risk—although not the sort Paparelli imagines. With his stylistically ill-conceived first act, he chances sending audiences out the door during intermission, which would mean they'd miss the stunning act-two turnaround that reveals how smart, absurd, and accomplished the show actually is.
Yeast Nation is a cheeky Malthusian romp in which resources get scarce, creatures get brutal, weakness is crushed, power is corrupted, and love fucks everything up. Set in 3,000,458,000 BC, it opens at a moment of crisis for earth's first life-forms. After eons of unfettered nutrient absorption and asexual reproduction—the "Do As You Please program" championed by their king, Jan the Elder—the salt they feed on is running out. Facing extinction, King Jan enacts the Strictures: minimize salt intake, no more mitosis, and never stray from the ocean floor. Disobedience is treason, and the punishment is death.
Jan's heroic oldest son, Jan the Second, wants to venture to the ocean's surface to find new food sources; his villainous daughter, Jan the Sly, wants to off her father, pop her idealistic brother's membrane, and claim the throne. A Greek-style chorus provides portentous, comically pretentious narration that one member repeatedly interrupts to point out the show's scientific inaccuracies.
Like Urinetown (and like the work Kotis and Hollmann did as part of the local fringe troupe Cardiff Giant a couple decades ago), Yeast Nation delights in self-deprecation, self-referentiality, cynicism, and schlock—but it's never simply glib. Hollmann's score may be a shameless pastiche of Broadway cliches, but it's a sharp and effective one. Kotis's book may be packed with creaky contrivances and schematic characterizations, but it wears its fairy-tale charm on its sleeve. The show may ridicule the twee conventions of American musical theater, but it treasures the emotional tug of hokum. For all their parody and put-downs, Kotis and Hollmann are suckers for the soaring ballad, the rock anthem, the gospel blowout and the against-all-odds romance, just like the audiences who adore Cats.
Yes, this is a dreadful idea for a musical. That's the point—and Paparelli misses it for most of his first act. Though he shoehorns in a few moments of self-mockery, like actors bumping into things or facing the wrong direction, he has his cast play it nearly straight, most problematically during the show's critical opening 15 minutes, when its rules of engagement are set. It doesn't help that Walt Spangler's set, comprising random theatrical detritus, makes no visual sense and offers no visual humor. Lacking the monumental sense of irony the script demands, much of act one is neither funny nor interesting.
It's not as if the cast can't handle the piece's style—it's clear they can as the first act concludes. With Mark Elliott's drum-tight musical direction bringing out almost every nuance in Hollmann's demanding score, they take act two to giddy heights despite Paparelli's dutiful staging and Tommy Rapley's merely serviceable choreography.
Maybe the show just needs a week on its feet to work out its stylistic unevenness. But this is Paparelli's second stab at Yeast Nation, after directing its premiere last year at Perseverance Theatre in Alaska. You'd think by now he'd know how to make the whole thing work.