When I first heard that CCM was producing a show called YEAST NATION, set in 30 Billion B.C., about a bunch of cells . . . well, honestly I thought . . . “Ugh.” I thought perhaps this would be a production I would struggle to write about. It was the least interesting premise I’d ever heard for a musical and was just too silly to work. But I also knew Vincent DeGeorge was directing, so I was holding out some hope that my initial reaction would be wrong.
I was wrong.
I will say, though, that without a director and choreographer with Vince’s skill, talent, and vision, this show could easily be a disaster. YEAST NATION is an absurdist story, a ridiculous and over the top satire, and in the hands of a less capable director and cast, would easily fall apart. The tone has to be just right to work. With too much slapstick, it would lose its sweetness. Without the self-aware sense of humor, it would just be stupid. DeGeorge (with whom my affection is no secret, see this recent feature I wrote – or frankly, any review of his work I’ve ever written) is masterful in maintaining the sincerity of the fable while keeping the audience in stitches with surprising physical humor and choreography to match the witty lyrics. It’s hilarious, over-the-top, and tonally specific.
The plot is well-developed. The yeasts have isolated themselves in the bottom of the ocean for protection at the order of their leader. He has a son, who falls in love with a sweet, young yeast, but love – as well as exploring past certain boundaries – is forbidden. So is eating anything but salt, which they are fearful of running out of. The king’s assistant also has eyes for the sweet one and the prince’s sister is a jealous type and they collude – using a pregnant yeast, who is fearful for her own well-being due to her pregnancy – to take control of the kingdom. But the prince becomes enlightened after leaving the community and returns with a daughter and a bucket of new food and woos the love interest. But because this is a satire, and a weird-as-heck musical, things go terribly, terribly wrong in Act 2. It’s very dark and very funny.
It also helps that the cast gets the joke, too. It’s a large ensemble, comprised of mostly undergraduate musical theatre students, all named “Jan (pronounced “Yan”) but with a nickname to describe them. Graduating senior, Anya Axel, starts from the very top of the show, setting the irreverent tone as the ironically blind overseer. Eli Mayer plays “Jan-the-Elder.” His baritone voice gave me chills at the top of the show. John Collins plays his son, “Jan-the-second oldest.” Collins is a star in the making; this is now his second brilliant performance on a CCM stage, following his stand-out turn in GODSPELL last fall. His comic timing is impeccable and his voice is clear as a bell. Bailee Endebrock, “Jan-the-sweet,” comes into her own as the perfect leading lady with Broadway-quality vocals and acting to match. Eric Schleck, “Jan-the-wise,” is the scheming right-hand man of the elder. He has the most difficult lyrics to sing, but his rapid-fire delivery was clear – and impressive. Schleck has a certain charisma about him; he’s infinitely watchable on stage. Delaney Guyer, “Jan-the-Sly,” is third in line for the throne but she wants it now. She is a great villain and I enjoyed her performance very much.
The rest of the named characters include Jamie Goodson (“Jan-the-famished”), Elijah King (“Yan-the-Youngest”), Kurtis Bradley Brown (“Yan-the-Wretched”), and Veronica Stern (“The New One”). There’s no weak link in this bunch; some of the harmonies from this cast were goose-bump producing. There’s a large chorus, too, which includes Haley Holcomb (also credited as assistant choreographer), Jordyn Blaine Walker, Nick Berninger (who also served as Assistant Director), David Littleton, Quinn Surdez, Jake Waford, and swings Ashton Francis and Christian Kidd. DeGeorge also cast two students from CCM’s acting department for his ensemble (Carlee Coulehan, Olivia Buss) and a voice major (Victoria Popritikin). Perhaps the best compliment I can give is that I didn’t know which three they were until I asked after the show; they held their own with the rest of the powerhouse cast.
Henry Lewers musical direction is top-notch. It’s unfortunate, though, that the persistently frustrating sound design caused his live band to sound like it might have been a recorded track. It was as if they were performing in a tunnel or steel can. At least the voices of these remarkable singers came through clearly and the lyrics, which are very funny but also very fast, were audible as long as the mic cues weren’t missed. Nicholas Smith’s subtle lighting design accentuated the story and Joshua E. Gallagher’s simple set design worked well for DeGeorge’s creative and sometimes gorgeous staging. Sarah Nowak served as props master and Abby Sauer stage-managed the production.
The opening night audience took a few moments to warm up to the comedy; I’m not sure they were quite ready for the ride that show-writers Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis (the same team behind “Urinetown”) were about to take us on. The book, which feels Shakespearean-if-Willie-were-high, is chock-full of humorous gags and smart one-liners and the music is luscious. Though they were stoic at first, as the story developed, the audience seemed engaged. As the hilarious physical comedy, the inspired choreography, and the soaring vocal performances continued through both Acts, people became less confused and more entertained.
My initial reaction to the announcement of this show in CCM’s season wasn’t wrong; it is a weird, odd, and risky piece. But thanks to brilliant direction and spectacular performances, YEAST NATION became a CCM-worthy production.
There are still two performances of YEAST NATION today at 2pm and 8pm. TIckets may be available and you can always sign up for the waiting list at the Box Office. Next season’s lineup has yet to be formally announced but for more information about the musical theatre program at UC-CCM click here.