Music & Lyrics by Mark Hollmann
Book & Lyrics by Greg Kotis
Directed by PJ Paparelli
At American Theatre Company (ATC)
Baffling rock musical, yeast nation, fails to raise to expectations
When I saw that yeast nation was created by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis–the folks who created Urinetown, I was pleasantly anticipating another terrific show. Here is what I said about Urinetown:
“Kotis and Hollman’s campy riff of Broadway, Urinetown, is a fresh hilarious spoof of Brechtian ‘epic’ theater, of political theatre and a Weillian stretch of operatic from. The result is a fresh, original colorful surprising musical. Urinetown proves once again that almost any topic is grist for the mill of talented musical composers and lyricists. This exuberant show will leave you basking in the glory of the stage’s power to entertain.”
So when yeast nation was about a colony of salt-eating yeasts floating in the brine of the primordial soup under the rule of a tyrannical baritone, I wasn’t surprised. Since I didn’t attend the opening, all week I heard the ‘buzz’ that the show was outstanding. Critics around town praised yeast nation so all indications were positive for the work. With top Chicago talent such as Barbara Robertson, Joseph Anthony Foronda, Andrew Keltz and Melanie Brezill–what could go wrong?
Well, a musical is anchored by its music and Mark Hollmann’s rock score has a sameness that features a haunting repetition–as if the keyboardist was pounding and pounding on one set of keys that became the dominant style for most of the songs. The volume forced many of the singers to scream-sing the lyrics in order to be heard. When a score lacks melodies and contains a thumping beat, it quickly dominates the sound and irritates more than entertains. Next, much of the lyrics were lost with the high pitched volume of the ensemble. Often the singers seemed to fighting the music rather than each complementing the other.
While I appreciated the energetic staging, the decision to play the story to its extreme resulted in a tiresome over the top screaming, shouting and screeching on each entrance or exit by the chorus. This in-your-face attitude lacked subtlety and became a melodramatic nagging that made me not care about the characters. In this show, the music and the lyrics (when I could understand them) seemed forced and contrived. Rock music is difficult to sustain in storytelling since it works best to convey a mood or atmosphere and it is tough to tell the story through loud rock music. Spring Awakening is the bench mark for the proper use of rock music in a musical.
As the story in yeast nation moves on, I began to adjust to the intensity and spirit of the piece. Melanie Brezill, Phil Ridarelli and Wendi Weber rendered fine work while Andrew Keltz and Joesph Anthony Foronda had their moments.
For me the use of a pounding hypnotic rock score and the scream-singing was too much. I believe that lyrics and music should work together to enhance and further the story in a manner to be appreciated and understood. Rock music makes that difficult at best. I realize that I may be a minority since my basic dislike for contemporary rock music colors my take on yeast nation. So if your enjoy rock music–then you’ll like this production. The production values were true to the spirit and purpose of the material. They were well performed and staged. I simply couldn’t deal with the score and the intense singing.
At American Theatre Company, 1909 W. Byron, Chicago, IL