Yank! Offers a Musical Twist

yank-broadwayThe musical Yank! that opened off-Broadway this week at the York Theatre refers to itself as “A World War II Love Story.” It is, indeed, but Yank! is not your conventional wartime love story, but rather a love story between two gay soldiers. The plot revolves around Stu, a young soldier grappling with and coming to terms with his own sexual orientation, and Mitch, who is having a more difficult time dealing with the obvious attraction he has for Stu.

What makes Yank! so ingenious is that its creators, Joseph and David Zellnik, wrote it in the style of an old-fashioned 1940s musical, with plenty of standard musical comedy and dance moments, even a dream ballet. But, woven into that, they have written a story of gay romance that never would have been told in one of those '40s shows. The result is entertaining, often quite funny, but also moving and powerful. Given the continuing headlines regarding “don’t ask, don’t tell,” Yank! is relevant and timely.

Yank! originated as a New York Musical Festival production in 2005; the Gallery Players in Brooklyn mounted a full production in 2007, which included the same leads, the same director, and some other cast members from this production. The York has held several readings since then, leading to this off-Broadway premiere. I had attended two of the readings and was immediately taken by Yank!, but this was the first time I had seen a full production.

The production offers that wonderful combination of a tuneful and winning score, a strong book, and some superb performances. Anchoring everything and serving as the show’s core is Bobby Steggert, who is nothing short of sensational. His Stu starts the show as an uncomfortable, vulnerable, uncertain, and fearful teenager, and we watch his character arc, ultimately growing into a more comfortable, strong, and confident young man. Steggert brilliantly conveys this entire range of emotions, along with some moments of joy and contentment, and he does so with enormous sensitivity. His acting of the big scenes is exceptional, his singing strong (he is excellent delivering the big Act Two song, the beautiful “It’s True”), and he even does some tap dancing in a terrific number called “Click.” Steggert was an outstanding and intense Younger Brother in the recent revival of Ragtime, and he has followed that up with this star turn in Yank! Ultimately, Steggert’s Stu is heartbreaking and endearing in a powerhouse performance.

As his love interest, the closeted and conflicted Mitch, Ivan Hernandez sings beautifully and brings the right mix of outward strength, longing, and inward confusion. He gets to sing one of the musical’s best songs, the lovely “Rememb’ring You,” which serves as the theme song for Stu and Mitch’s relationship. His scenes with Steggert are particularly powerful, and we see some real heat and sparks between them as their relationship grows.

All the women’s roles are played by Nancy Anderson. In many of them, she is playing a performer, singing songs that evoke the mood and feel of the era, from swing to torch songs. These are reflective of the songs that appeared in so many movies and shows from that era, and Anderson is a fine singer with a big presence. As a gay soldier who writes for Yank Magazine (there was such a magazine) and befriends Stu, Jeffry Denman is witty and marvelous. Denman also choreographed Yank! He is a terrific dancer and has the chance to show that in the previously mentioned show-stopper “Click,” as well as in another big tap number in Act Two. He has done a nice job staging the Act Two dream ballet, a well-done pas de deux for a dream Stu and dream Mitch that has elicited mixed responses. While not necessary, I thought it worked fine and contributed to the mood of the overall piece.

All the performers have good material to work with. Joseph Zellnik wrote the fine score, and his brother, David, wrote lyrics along with the book. There are some tuneful and attractive songs, ranging from ballads to era-appropriate songs to old-fashioned Broadway entertainment numbers. The book is particularly impressive, building drama and creating characters you can really care about. It seamlessly moves from serious scenes to comic moments, and there are some scenes, including the show’s concluding moments, that are beautiful and powerful. The Zellniks also have come up with an effective framing conceit for Yank! The show begins in modern-day San Francisco, with Steggert as a contemporary young man who found Stu’s journal in a second hand shop and is taken by his narrative. Steggert’s character reads from the diary, as we are taken back to World War II and the events that are described in the diary and presented in the musical. The musical ends with a brief and poignant soliloquy by Steggert’s contemporary character, reflecting on Stu’s experiences and their impact.

The readings I had seen did not include most of the dance numbers (although “Click” was included), and showed such tight storytelling that it took a little while to get used to the various fleshed-out song and dance moments. But they work, and they add to the entertainment value of Yank! Director Igor Goldin gives the show a fluid look and pacing, and he expertly transitions between the serious scenes and the comic moments. The set is minimal but works acceptably for the material.

That is not to say that Yank! is perfect. Stu and Mitch’s fellow soldiers are all pretty much stereotypical stock characters. Even Stu and Mitch are not fully fleshed out as three-dimensional characters, though Steggert is so good that he makes Stu seem more multi-dimensional than he is written. Some people might even argue that the standard musical comedy scenes distract from the overall seriousness and drama of the piece. But in all honesty, none of these things got in the way of my enjoyment and appreciation of Yank! It works as an entertaining, absorbing, impactful, and richly emotional show, with a memorable performance from Bobby Steggert. Here's hoping that the production at the York leads to even bigger and better things for Yank! and for Steggert. - James Miller

Photo by Jennifer Maufrais Kelly.

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Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.

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