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Justin Alvarez: The Same Old Song (3 Trillion Years Ago)

August 22, 2011

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New York Fringe Festival wonder boys Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman return to the launching pad of their Tony-winning musical Urinetown, but their new show Yeast Nation is a real gas. Literally.

By **Justin Alvarez**

Justin Alvarez_Large.jpgThe subtitle to the new musical Yeast Nation is “the triumph of life,” but I found myself questioning “the meaning of life” more than anything as I exited La MaMa on Sunday afternoon. Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman’s newest musical spoofing musicals to be featured at the New York International Fringe Festival attempts to top the absurdism of Urinetown, their Tony Award-winning (and mythically successful) satire and cautionary tale that highlighted the theories of Thomas Malthus (“The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”). While Urinetown focuses on a town whose water shortage leads to all toilets being managed pay-per-use by a megacorporation, Yeast Nation focuses on something, you could say, simpler: yeast. Yes, yeast—single-cell organisms living at the bottom of the “primordial soup” circa 3 trillion B.C. They all eat only salt. And they are all named Jan.

Amongst the Jersey Shoresical: A Frickin’ Rock Opera and Flaccid Penis Seeks Vaginal Dryness of the Festival, it’s not hard for a work by Fringe poster boys Kotis and Hollman to stand out. Unfortunately, the so-so material and uninspired score bogs down one of the more polished productions I’ve seen at the Fringe. The thing is, Yeast Nation is merely a rehash of Urinetown. Rules instituted to sustain life are no longer working as “resources deplete and fear prevails,” and power-hungry officials and well-meaning mavericks only add to the chaos. Sound familiar? Throw in a tongue-in-cheek narrator (Tony winner Harriet Harris with not much material to work with) and a precocious, young sidekick, and besides the change of locale and lack of multiple-celled organism we have the same old story.

Not to say there are no memorable moments. Joy Suprano (from HBO’s How To Make It In America) as Jan the Sly is someone who clearly needs to step out onto the stage more often. She’s the only character the show seemed to stop for, and whenever she belted out you realized what the show was missing: besides a powerful voice, comic instinct. The otherwise strong ensemble kept the energy and entertainment levels up while the show quickly began to drag, but without any worthy material to work with there wasn’t much the cast could do to salvage the show. And after the third song, you quickly realized that every song sounded the same. I felt for the drummer as he played the same beat for a very long 2 hours and 15 minutes, and as I walked out of the theater I tried to sing one of the songs to my fiancée but I couldn’t remember how a single lyric went.

Yeast Nation (The Triumph of Life) continues this week during the New York International Fringe Festival at the Ellen Stewart Theater at La Mama ETC.

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Justin Alvarez is a blog and new media editor at Guernica. Read more about him here.

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