“I had muck for dinner, muck for lunch….”
There have been times in my career as a restaurant critic when I wished I could write that line. This one comes from “Yeast Nation,” the offbeat, new, comic rock musical from former Chicagoans Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis, now in its Midwest premiere at American Theater Company in North Center. Hollman and Kotis are the Neo-Futurists behind that unlikely Broadway hit, “Urinetown.”
Trouble besets the prehistoric primordial soup, where one-celled yeasts — all named Jan — the only lifeforms extant are on the verge of outrunning their salty food supply. Their despotic king (a regal Joseph Foronda), bent on preserving stasis, has forbidden them both to procreate and to seek out new feeding grounds in the higher reaches — upon pain of “popping.”
His son (Andrew Keltz, a fine voice) rebels, singing, “Those strictures stink. They stink so bad, it really blows.” At this point, I was thinking the musical did, too, but as yeasts are wont to do, it began to grow on me. The concept alone is hilarious enough to overcome lyrics like, “Love’s both good and crappy. It makes you cruel and sappy,” but the score needs punching up.
Fans of “Urinetown” will recognize some reused themes — overpopulation, the smart-aleck kid (Robert Gerdisch), the constant meta-jokes, the rolling ladder, the triumph and tragedy of love, the homage to bygone artists. The music seems to draw heavily on the 1960s for its inspiration. I found myself reminded, at various times, of “Soul Train,” The Beach Boys and “Sweet Charity.”
Purple light bulbs, diaphanous green ponchos, black nail polish and hot pink skintights create a colorful, if somewhat bilious primordial soup. Barbara Robertson’s wonderfully witchy performance as the spooky narrator, Jan the Unnamed, is worth the ticket price, and Wendi Weber, as Jan the Famished, is wonderfully funny, too.
Like its characters, the play, first workshopped in Alaska, is a primitive lifeform that still has some rising to do. Yeast isn’t everyone’s meat and drink, but you’ll likely be glad you saw this one, even before it’s fully baked.