BOTTOM LINE: An endearing new musical about being gay and falling in love — on the front lines of WWII.
Can we please repeal ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” already? After seeing Yank!, and the unnecessary desolation that accompanies keeping mum as a homosexual in the Army, it seems ridiculous that this is a modern debate. Yank! takes place during WWII, 60-some years ago, and the ignorance and bigotry are incomprehensible then. Is it not possible that we’ve made some progress in the name of civil rights in all that time? I feel a digression coming on.
Back to the point: Yank! is a winning new musical, well worth your time and money. After a successful first stint in the New York Musical Theatre Festival in summer 2005, followed by an even more successful run in 2007 at the Gallery Players in Brooklyn, Yank! now unveils its off-Broadway debut at the fancy York Theatre on the Upper East Side. The York is known for cultivating new musicals and doing it well — their operating budget seems plentiful, and they put on a quality show. Thus, this was a clever choice to bring Yank! to their doors, as I see bright things for this show’s future.
Yank! is about a young guy (Bobby Steggert, from Broadway’s Ragtime) who finds a journal in a junk shop written by a guy during WWII. As he begins to read the journal to the audience, he is transported back to the early 1940s and he embodies the young soldier, Stu. Stu is gay, but he hasn’t really admitted it to himself yet — and as he enlists in the army and goes through basic training, he discovers the underground gay community that exists behind the barrack’s walls. It’s the first time he learns that it’s okay to like guys (as long as you are very secretive about it so you don’t get caught). Stu adores his hunky squad mate Mitch (Ivan Hernandez) who is deep in the metaphorical closet, and they start a relationship of sorts. Stu meets a journalist by chance: Artie (Jeffry Denman) writes for Yank magazine and promises to take Stu under his wing and make him a photographer for Yank so he doesn’t have to fight in the war. Artie is gay and he introduces Stu to the ins and outs of homosexual life in the army. Stu reluctantly agrees to the photographer position, although he hates to be separated from Mitch. The rest of the story unfolds in ways that are obvious and trite, yet touching and poignant — it is a musical, after all.
One thing Yank! has going for it is a stellar cast, able to communicate an endearing story of love, identity and the struggle it takes to be true to yourself. Written by Joseph and David Zellnik, this musical is sincere and uplifting, despite the hardships it deals with. Plus, ample music and fun choreography keep the show moving. Although it’s a new musical, it stays very true to the era in which it takes place. It is structurally and musically traditional; while many new musicals have a rock and roll emphasis, Yank! is most definitely a 1940’s show (i.e. “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” would fit right in to this score).
Many nuances keep it modern, though, such as Nancy Anderson’s portrayal of all the female characters in this story. Anderson (Broadway’s Wonderful Town) is right at home amongst the all-male cast and her performance is a little bit Broadway diva and a little bit downtown cabaret; she always projects a knowing smile (and a wink-wink-nudge-nudge, ”are we having fun yet?” attitude). Basically, she’s awesome.
I was incredibly entertained by Yank! and also touched by its story. It’s not perfect — my friend who accompanied me thought Act I was overly expository and involved too much schtick but enjoyed Act II much more as the story developed further. I am inclined to agree, although my affinity for musical theatre and cheesy choreography usurps any critical analysis at the end of the day and thus, I am forgiving. I think Yank! has a broad appeal and nearly everyone will find the charm in this upbeat and sincere show. If you are a musical theatre fan or if you are homosexual (and probably a musical theatre fan by default), then Yank! is a definite must-see — put it on your to-do list immediately. The brothers Zellnik have crafted a sweet and important story and director Igor Goldin makes it a pleasure to experience. Check it out before it moves somewhere bigger and tickets get more expensive.
(Yank! plays at the York Theatre, 619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street, through March 21. Performances are Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday through Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2:30pm and 8pm and Sunday at 2:30pm. For tickets visit yorktheatre.org. Get $47 tickets with discount code HHCYANK. For more show info visit yankthemusical.com.)