Yank Review: Gays in the Military, in WW II

Yank Review: Gays in the Military, in WW IIIn a scene from “Yank!” made to look like an old black and white movie complete with flickering lights, a young bandaged soldier lies on a hospital cot under the care of a tearful nurse.
“I did it! I saved em! The whole squad!” he yells out.
“Rest now,” the nurse says, before she breaks out into song – a stage actress playing a movie actress who is a bit too eager to emote for the cameras.

It is a spot-on parody of both war movies and movie musicals, but it is not a typical moment in “Yank!” a new musical at the York Theater Company. For “Yank!” does not parody as much as pay homage to an era, and to that era’s entertainment, with torch songs and tap-dance routines and we’re-in-this-together buddy numbers like the one that follows the movie scene, “Yer Squad is Yer Squad.”

There are love duets too: “Yank!” is subtitled “A WW II Love Story,” and that love story is between two male soldiers.

Yank Review: Gays in the Military, in WW IIIn less talented hands, such a concoction could have produced a tasteless mix of cliché, camp, and bombast. All three elements certainly exist in “Yank!” (mostly the first two), but here it all works. In the capable hands of the Zellnik brothers and the rest of the creative team, and with a well-chosen cast, “Yank!” is like a gay “South Pacific.” I should say quickly that “Yank!” is not likely to enter the musical theater canon, or be revived in 50 years; the tunes, while pleasing, did not seem especially memorable, and there are some awkward plot devices. But “Yank!” and “South Pacific” share setting, theme and tone (or range of tones, from playful to pointed; soulful to a bit schmaltzy.) And whatever its flaws, “Yank!” is a musical very difficult to dislike.

You’ve seen the story in “Yank!” before – it starred Frank Sinatra or Glenn Ford learning to be a man in a World War II combat squad of diverse recruits. Here that young man is named Stu, played by Bobby Steggert, who was praised for his performance as Younger Brother in the recent Broadway revival of “Ragtime” and whose performance here is likely to expand his fan club. He is put into a squad with a hick from Tennessee, a Pole from Brooklyn, a “professor” from Boston…and Mitch from New Jersey (Ivan Hernandez). We first see Mitch singing a love ballad, “Rememb’ring You,” which might be to the girl back home…or might be to Stu.

Soon, there is little ambiguity. “I think you’re pretty special, kid,” Mitch says in his manly way, before they kiss.

Theirs, however, is not an easy romance. Prejudice has a role in keeping the lovers apart, as it did in “South Pacific,” but here it includes self-hatred; Mitch cannot handle his attraction.

At this point, the cavalry arrives in the form of a queen named Artie and the plot swerves in an interesting way. Artie is a reporter for Yank magazine, which was an actual magazine written by and for servicemen during World War II. While Stu’s old squad is shipped to the front, Artie enlists Stu as his photographer and introduces him to the subterranean world of the gay military. That this existed is well-documented in such books as “Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II,” by Allan Berube.

It would be inaccurate to claim that “Yank!” is apolitical, if you define politics as concerning matters on which people still disagree. In a few brief, stark scenes, a soldier suspected of being gay is arrested, beaten, interrogated, humiliated; there is talk of 20-year prison sentences.

Yank Review: Gays in the Military, in WW IIIt would also be misleading, however, to imply a political tract. The primary goal of “Yank!” is pleasing the audience, and the greatest evidence I have for that can be summed up in two words — Nancy Anderson.

In a cast of 12, Anderson is the only woman. She has one-line parts as girlfriend or mother. She plays that nurse in the corny movie that the soldiers are watching in the barracks. Her most extensive role is as a lesbian in uniform (secretary to a general). But she mostly plays entertainers, a nightclub singer or a Hollywood pinup or various singers on the radio, each one with a different look (and hair color!) and style. Few of her roles are essential to the story, perhaps, but taken together her performance is enough reason alone to see this show. Anderson has been on Broadway (in “Wonderful Town” and “A Class Act”) but she feels like a discovery here.

Ditto for Jeffry Denman, Broadway veteran of “White Christmas” and “The Producers,” who plays Artie and, more significantly, is the choreographer of “Yank!”, whose highlights include a clever tap-dance duet called “Click” and a full-out dream ballet, a pas-de-deux between two men (Dennis Lambert and Joseph Medeiros) who are dance avatars for Stu and Mitch. That there is so much wonderful dancing on a stage that would only seem spacious for a puppet show is a testament to the vitality of this production.

If “Yank!” is a paean to the 40′s musical, it is not a precise replica of one, which is a good thing — most of the time: It is narrated by a modern-day San Franciscan (played by Steggert), who is supposedly reading the story from a diary he discovered recently in a junk shop, one of the plot devices that I don’t think works very well. Overall though, the musical is an inspired pairing of 1940′s-style music and movie subject matter with an issue that existed sub-rosa in the 1940′s and is making headlines today. (In fact, one could see it as the pairing of two current issues — gays in the military, and gay marriage.) At one point, Stu tries to remain optimistic in the face of all the barriers to their love: “Things can’t change right away,” Stu tells Mitch. “Maybe it won’t be till 1948 or 1950…But things will change.” And they have, albeit a bit later. One proof is “Yank!”

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“Yank!”
at the York Theatre Company, The Theater at Saint Peter’s (54th Street East of Lexington)
Music by Joseph Zellnik, book and lyrics by David Zellnik
Directed by Igor Goldin
Choreographed by Jeffry Denman, music director John Baxindine, scenic design Ray Klausen, costume design Tricia Barsamian, lighting design Ken Lapham.
Cast:
Nancy Anderson as all the women
Bobby Steggert as Stu
Ivan Hernandez as Mitch
Jeffry Denman as Artie
Andrw Durand, Zak Edwards, Todd Faulkner, Denis Lambert, Joseph Medeiros, David Perlman, Christopher Ruth, Tally Sessions
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with one intermission
Ticket price: $67.50
Through March 21st (but sure to get extended)

Update: Yank! has been extended until April 4.

Jonathan Mandell, who tweets as New York Theater, is a native New Yorker and third-generation journalist with diverse experience on newspapers, magazines and websites.He has written for a wide varie ...read more

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