Tongue-in-cheek is a hard enough act to pull off; it’s even harder to follow up. Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis created “Urinetown” — by far the biggest commercial success of the flippantly offbeat musical genre — and now return with a spiritedly silly new tuner called “Yeast Nation (The Triumph of Life).” Ostensibly, it’s about the world’s earliest life forms, but it’s really a riff on individual human aspiration, love and theatrical storytelling. While it’s an easily recognizable sibling to “Urinetown,” show possesses enough uniqueness and consistent cleverness to forge its own path, and this small-scale but spot-on production at Chicago’s American Theater Company will only help “Yeast” rise.
“Yeast Nation” retains a self-conscious playing style and semi-social conscience, but it has a softer edge than “Urinetown” and feels less immediately influenced by Brecht and Weill. Instead, it might be considered the bastard child of Euripides and Casey Kasem, with its Greek-style chorus — led by a terrific Barbara Robertson as the blind seer with big hair and a walking stick into which she sings as if it were a microphone — and musical influences that span the ’70s and ’80s styles of soft rock, R&B and even a wee dash of disco.
Show is set in 3,000,458,000 B.C., deep down in the oceans of early Earth, and director PJ Paparelli and his design team have smartly gone for the straightforward and simple. The set consists mostly of a few theater chairs and lots of hanging light bulbs, and the yeast themselves are dressed in green poncho-like coverings with a sunny-side-up-egg thingy on their bellies to represent a single-cell life-force.
Similar to “Urinetown,” this is a society that has confronted a resource problem — they’re running out of salt to eat — and responded with tyranny. Chief among the yeast, Jan the Elder (Joseph Anthony Foronda) and his sidekick Jan the Wise (Phil Ridarelli) enforce “strictures” that prohibit the yeast, all named Jan in case you hadn’t yet noticed, from rising to the surface. What follows is a story of youthful love and rebellion involving gooey muck, a coup attempt and … evolution.
“Can it really be true, mistress, that there were no stories before this one?” asks a choral member of Robertson’s blind oracle. “None worth musicalizing,” she responds.
It’s actually quite sharp for Kotis and Hollman to take on the beginning of life, because it’s just the right context for them to do what they do best — toy with storytelling cliches to make them both function dramatically and seem fresh. The show peaks, in fact, with Robertson’s ballad “Love Equals Pain,” sung to the ingenue Jan the Sweet (Melanie Brezill) when her love affair with the princely Jan the Second (Andrew Geltz) goes awry. Robertson takes the most common sentiment of all song, and invests this lesson on love’s agony with a passion that’s both Greek tragedy and Tina Turner. It’s funny and it’s good.
The rest of the score may not be especially memorable (anyone remember songs from “Urinetown?”), but the numbers are pleasing, they always match the moment, and they’re delivered exceptionally well by a uniformly fine cast. Hollman doesn’t spoof styles so much as borrow them, and he selects his varied inspirations carefully to match the characters who sing them.
Paparelli, who also directed an earlier version of this show in Alaska in 2007, deserves credit for balancing the characters’ serious emotions with the inherent slightness and jocularity of the piece. He also helps by refusing to milk moments that generate the biggest laughs, such as when Second smears newly discovered slimy muck onto Sweet’s face as an act of affection. It’s funny, but it could get really old really fast if they let it. “Yeast Nation” doesn’t reach for giddy heights, but it’s amusing throughout.
What ultimately makes Kotis and Hollman different from others who serve up self-conscious shtick is that their irreverence doesn’t feel like a put-on but a natural voice. They manage to make tongue-in-cheek come off oddly sincere.