‘Yeast Nation’ rocks the ocean floor with a quirky, comic look at the beginning of life
- Written by Tina Farmer
New Line Theatre brings the story of life to the musical stage with the pop-infused, up tempo rock musical “Yeast Nation,” a tale of the evolution of everyone’s favorite first living beings, the salt-eating yeasts. Jan the Elder, the first of the yeasts to split and thereby reproduce itself, has always ruled the yeasts. As he’s gotten older, he’s become more rigid, putting laws in place limiting the movements of the other yeasts. But the piece of the ocean floor that they consider home is running short on salt and, if the yeasts are too survive, they must find new sources of nourishment.
After seeing another yeast brutally punished for exploration, Jan the Second, the Elder’s eldest and favorite son, has dared to rise up to the surface. Once there, he discovers muck, another potential food source that instantly energizes any yeast that consumes it. He shares his muck with Yan the Sweet, who has attracted the attention of both the Second and Jan the Wise, the Elder’s scheming next son. Daughter Jan the Sly, in line for the throne just after the Second, carefully observes her brothers’ actions and launches a plan to take the crown for herself. Though the Elder tries to keep a tight grasp on his yeast children, but he is not cruel. He allows another yeast to live after she reproduces, creating Jan the Youngest and, when Jan the Second creates a new creature after eating muck, the Elder accepts the New One and forgives his son.
Zachary Allen Farmer gives Jan the Elder the deep voice and commanding presence expected of a king, but he also shows us a kind heart and rational thought. Dominic Dowdy-Windsor is open-minded and eager to explore both his feelings and the world beyond the boundaries while his yeast brother Micheal Lowe is fiercely ambitious, using logic and law to further his cause. Both have a pleasant voice and sure command of their range. The three represent the conflict of the play, in terms of plot and emotional discovery, and the back and forth between Dowdy-Windsor and Lowe is particularly enjoyable.
But it’s the women, particularly Larissa White as Jan the Sweet, Grace Langford as Jan the Sly, Sarah Gene Dowling as Jan the Unnamed, Jennelle Gilreath as Jan the Famished and Lex Ronan as The New One who captivate the audience and provide the driving force for this delightful show. White and Langford are compelling vocally and emotionally, while Gilreath and Ronan are perfectly cartoonish without missing a note and Dowling serves as our blind guide and narrator to comic effect. The ensemble is deep in talent and voice, and Colin Dowd stands out for his humorous portrayal of Jan the youngest. The result is a vocal miasma that’s filled with interesting variety and bountiful energy.
New Line’s resident conductor Sarah Nelson keeps the band tight and the rhythm driving, adding energy and interesting bursts of sound in addition to the solid score. Scenic and lighting designer Rop Lippert creates an inviting, colorful ocean floor, cleverly using swim tubes to replicate flora and fauna and complementing the yeasts themselves, costumed by Sarah Porter with splashes of vibrant neon and ornate headdresses. The New One, reminiscent of a bright pink cookie monster, is an imaginative and delightful counter to the yeasts, and hard to find intimidating even as she devours anything she finds palatable. Spoiler alert – it isn’t the salt or the muck.
With hints of rebellion, purposeful manipulation and the discovery of love, “Yeast Nation” borrows heavily from other story arcs, but the familiarity doesn’t hurt the fast-moving and intentionally over-the-top funny musical. Though the songs are more than 3-million years old they are likely unfamiliar to most audience members, but the style is rock with a little Broadway sprinkled in for good measure. The opening “Hear the Song” is a hopeful anthem with a mysterious edge, “Burnin’ Soul” is soulful and delivered with heart by White and “Little Sister” is an angry rebellious tune that Langford belts out with conviction. Dowdy-Windsor’s “I’ll Change the World Around” is sweet and poppy, while “Me Good” is a humorous tune that Farmer and Ronan deliver with such ebullient spirit it may keep your head bopping for days. “Love Equals Pain” is layered with harmonic hooks and the rest of the songs are equally entertaining and upbeat.
The characters and situations are distinct and uniquely quirky and the story, while familiar, unfolds in interesting twists and splits. New Line Theatre embraces the odd and evolving world of “Yeast Nation,” continuing through June 23, giving it vibrant color and effective performances that are delightfully engaging and thoroughly satisfying. You might learn a little science if you listen closely, but you’re sure to leave the theater with a smile, a melody in your head and a new appreciation for our distant neighbors those salt-eating yeasts.