Well, Hurricane Irene seems to have officially landed ashore in the Boston area, so much of the city has rightly shut down to keep the populace safe. In particular, all events have been canceled at the Boston Conservatory, which has given me the chance to catch up on some of my blogging backlog.
It seems oddly appropriate that I should use this weather-induced respite to finish up my report on the shows I was able to catch at the New York Fringe Festival, as Irene also precipitated the cancellation of the Festival's last day of performances and closing festivities.
This was actually my first excursion to the Fringe. I'm not really sure why I've never ventured south before (most of the shows tend to take place downtown), but I think the sheer amount of choice available usually seemed rather overwhelming. (There were 194 separate shows in the Fringe this year alone. Yikes.) Plus, the productions tend to play at odd times, like 5 PM and 11 AM. Since I don't live in the city, it's harder for me to pop by a show on a whim. I would usually need to make specific plans, and with the scattered nature of the Fringe schedule, it requires a bit more planning than seeing a show on the main stem, or even Off-Broadway.
But, more to the point, I never really knew about any of the Fringe shows beforehand. Somehow, this year, a couple of high-profile productions caught my attention: Yeast Nation and The Legend of Julie Taymor, Or The Musical That Killed Everybody. It also didn't hurt that two outstanding recent graduates of the Boston Conservatory were involved in said productions: Steven Cardona and Stephanie Gandalfo, assistant choreographers for Yeast Nation and The Legend of Julie, respectively. The combination of these enticing shows and two beloved former students proved irresistible, and I decided the take the Fringe plunge.
The runaway hit of the Fringe this year was Yeast Nation, which quickly sold out before it had even had one performance. This was due mostly to the pedigree of the creators. Greg Kotis (book, lyrics, direction) and Mark Hollmann (music and lyrics) were responsible for Urinetown, which from what I understand is the most successful musical to emerge from the Fringe in its 15-year history.
Urinetown has become a modern classic in the minds of many theater aficionados, and, I believe, rightly so. Yeast Nation is the much-anticipated follow-up to Urinetown, and has been aborning for a few years now, including an engagement at Chicago's American Theatre Company two seasons back. After Chicago, Kotis and Hollmann were unable to secure financial backing for Yeast Nation, so they decided to give the Fringe, which had worked so well for Urinetown, another try.
It's easy to see why no one deigned to open their checkbooks for Yeast Nation: it's a pale offspring of Urinetown, too similar in all the wrong ways, and not enough like it in the ways that made Urinetown exceptional.
Yeast Nation takes place three billion years ago, and concerns the first supposed life forms on earth: salt-eating yeast. The yeast are running out of food, and the ruling powers have set down rules to conserve the community's precious resources. Those who transgress the rules are destroyed. Sound familiar? Yeast Nation even includes the droll narrator and the precocious child who acts as the narrator's foil. Add in some meta references to musical theater and self-conscious jokes about the ridiculousness of the scenario, and you essentially have Urinetown redux.
What Yeast Nation fails to replicate, however, is everything that made Urinetown fresh and entertaining. The music to Urinetown is catchy Kurt Weill manqué. The music for Yeast Nation is bland, uniform, mediocre rock. And the lyrics aren't funny. At all. The songs exhibit little of the comic inspiration that makes listening to the cast recording of Urinetown almost as enjoyable as watching the show live. I can't imagine wanting to listen to any of the songs from Yeast Nation again, with the notable exception of "Stasis," a rousing mock anthem to maintaining the status quo. The song hints at what Yeast Nation could have been, and perhaps might someday become, but as currently configured the score is almost entirely expendable.
The show almost works during the book scenes, although most of the jokes are, again, recycled. Harriet Harris, who is almost always a source of pleasure onstage, is sadly underused here as the narrator. She seemed to sense this and to respond by exaggerating her line delivery to the point of making much of what she said incomprehensible. Also, toward the end, the tone of the show seemed to lose whatever focus it may have had. My best guess is that the denouement had something to do with the power of love. I'm assuming this was ironic on the part of the creators, but in performance it wasn't clear whether it was meant to be a put on. In fact, the show toward the end unraveled to the point of bewilderment.
(Although the guy seated behind me was clearly enjoying the proceedings far more than I was, in fact far more than anyone else in the audience. His hardy, forced laughter was ubiquitous, which gave me the sneaking suspicion that he was somehow involved in the production and/or was planted to "sweeten" up the audience. If so, boo.)
The other high-profile Fringe show that I took in was The Legend of Julie Taymor, Or The Musical That Killed Everybody, which boasts a different kind of cultural cachet from that of Yeast Nation. I'm sure you won't be surprised to discover that The Legend of Julie is a satirical version of the much-publicized and disastrous events leading up to the long-delayed Broadway opening of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
The Legend of Julie seemed to be aiming for the same comedic territory as Silence - The Musical, a Fringe hit from another season that is now playing an extended run Off Broadway. (Read my review.) The shared formula: Take a story that everyone presumably knows and have a lot of fun making fun of everything and everyone involved.
But, as with Silence, the joke in The Legend of Julie is only funny for so long, and then we're stuck slogging through the details of the story. And slog we do, through all of the various plot twists and turns of events, rather slavishly and without much of a point of view, except perhaps for, "Gee, weren't these people arrogant?" The book doesn't add much of anything new or surprising to the narrative until about 80% of the way through the show, and then it rushes at breakneck speed to the finish. The final scene features some rather pretentious speechifying, then segues into a closing number that is every bit as incomprehensible as anything in Spider-Man, before or after Taymor's departure.
The book for The Legend of Julie is by Travis Ferguson, and although much of the content is mildly to moderately amusing, the show came off like a really professional student-written production rather than a legitimate contender for the professional stage. (Ferguson sat in front of me mouthing the words to every song throughout the entire show. That certainly didn't add much to my perception of the professionalism of the proceedings.)
That's not to say that The Legend of Julie is totally without its charms. The number in the second act about the first preview of Spider-Man, in which everyone in the audience was tweeting his or her impressions, was quite funny and well executed, but it seemed more like the kind of thing that would work better as a stand-alone number in a revue like Forbidden Broadway than as the justification for an entire two-act show.
But the real nail in The Legend of Julie's coffin is the fact that, by definition, the show is mired in events that have already started to recede from the public consciousness. The show was selected to become part of the FringeNYC Encore Series, in which the most popular or well-received Fringe productions get a chance at an encore. I could be wrong here, but I really don't see either Yeast Nation of The Legend of Julie having much of an afterlife.