nytheatre.com review by Scott Mendelsohn
November 1, 2007
At the beginning of Yank!, an anonymous fellow finds a journal from World War II, a story of one soldier who fell in love with another. We know practically nothing about our narrator, yet he demands our attention to tell this story as a big, brassy, old-fashioned musical, complete with love songs, tap numbers, and even a dream ballet. Why is he so fascinated with this old diary, written by someone he never met?
As a gay story, Yank! gives us one answer by providing affirmation of the identity struggles for which we gay people constantly hunger. Joseph and David Zellnik serve up a beautifully composed, entertaining slice of our secret history. But because they tell this coming out story with such rich historical and psychological detail, Yank! engages fundamental questions of love, citizenship and cultural belonging, beyond the obvious audience of lesbians and gay men and those who are obsessed with old musicals. It's not there yet, but Yank! is poised to become a musical of real stature.
Stu, a young enlisted man, joins an inter-cultural squad of men typical of war plays. Dislocated from their home as they all are, these diverse types grasp at what they have in common: movies and songs from pop culture; the trials of war as described in the soldiers' magazine, Yank!; and most importantly, their shared lust for women. Stu, however, doesn't share that lust; he's drawn instead to the manly and gorgeous Mitch. Mitch returns Stu's affections, but with a family and fiancée back home, Mitch has more to lose. As his lover tries to deny his desire, Stu meets Artie, a rather mercenary reporter for Yank! who uses the glamour of his position to seduce Stu into a gay underground, focused on the pursuit of immediate gratifications.
Under the intelligent direction of Igor Goldin, the cast serves the piece up with great confidence. His precise staging of the ensemble emphasizes the excellence of the material, and mostly justifies the Spartan production values. Bobby Steggart's Stu impresses with a combination of vulnerability and wisdom beyond his years. And Maxime de Toledo lush baritone and classic looks embody the romance of the period as he delivers the essence of Mitch's struggle. Jeffry Denman's choreography rises to sterling standards, as does his polished portrayal of Artie. And Nancy Anderson brings sparkle to a series of star-worthy cameos, singing flawlessly in the style of Judy Garland, Betty Hutton, and Jeanette McDonald, not to mention playing all the soldiers' girlfriends, Stu's mom, and a tough lesbian aide-de-camp to General MacArthur.
The Zellniks trust their chosen form, rooting us in the period, but never allowing the nostalgic impulse to distract from the characters. Joseph Zellnik's beautiful pastiche score consistently sets the perfect mood, and in "Just True" breaks into a more contemporary idiom, reflecting Stu's more progressive dreams. Even more striking are David Zellnik's book scenes. Models of musical theater efficiency, the love scenes contain real poetry. When Stu reunites with Mitch at the end of the first act, he describes his lover: "Alone, drinking, under a palm tree, as the sun was setting over a stretch of black volcanic sand." With one surprising detail, Zellnik calls forth a terra incognito—the perfect setting for two disconnected men to connect.
The most assured number is "Click," in which Artie seduces Stu. Up to this point, Stu has cowered under the threat of exposure, or stolen moments with his closeted lover. Denman's flashy ease as a hoofer overcomes Stu's initial resistance to the somewhat lascivious offer. When Steggert cuts loose on his own, he perfectly embodies Stu's thrill as he learns to transform his sexuality from a magnet for violence into a source of power and desire. Like the best numbers in Oklahoma!, Gypsy, and The Music Man, "Click" not only entertains, it feels essential.
In the second act dream ballet, Denman uses pure movement to keenly tell the story of Stu's anguish when he is arrested under the army's anti-homosexual policies. Jonathan Day dances "Dream Stu," capturing the army's betrayal of the young soldier, who nevertheless longs to serve on the frontline with his lover and his squad. As in Oklahoma! and Carousel, the surreal sequence taps into psychological forces beyond the young man's ability to articulate. I only wish Stu's specific dilemma—whether to accept an abbreviated prison sentence or to return to the front with his comrades—had been made clear to the audience prior to the ballet. Without a clear dramatic purpose, the opening of the ballet feels like parody when it is actually quite earnest, and essential to the story.
This fuzziness of plotting is the main thing that holds the show back. Without stronger hooks, the show tends to smooth out its dramatic highs and lows. Perhaps it is because the writers left out one aspect of the classic musical structure: a sub-plot featuring a secondary couple. If the Zellniks added that piece of the formula back in, it could add urgency to the proceedings, give bite to the macho posturing of the other soldiers, and use the contrast to deepen our experience of Stu and Mitch's relationship.
Most importantly, it would extend the compassion we feel for Stu and Mitch to all the soldiers. As Stu impassionedly cries to his lover in the central anthem of the show, "Just True,"
What we have is special
What we are is not
We're two of thousands....
Hundreds of thousands
Who felt lost and alone before
Have found each other in the war
Now we're wise
The freaks are us
Us regular guys
This is Stu's dream: that he and his lover would some day be recognized for their sacrifices alongside all their comrades. This story of a gay soldier leaving home and finding his identity is actually a part of a larger uprooting that happened in America at that time. World War II opened the way to a new level of class mobility, shared media culture, desegregation, women's rights, and, yes, to a sexual revolution for gay and straight alike. The epilogue of Yank! even hints at this new playing field: the anonymous man who found the diary mentions a lover, but never names the gender. Stu's refusal to accept second-class status for his love points the way to this radical vision. If the Zellniks were to develop some of the straight characters as richly as they have Stu and Mitch, Yank! would resonate as an archetypal story of love in wartime that would stand proudly alongside the best of American musical theater. As it is, I fear Yank!'s beauty may remain muffled behind the walls off the gay ghetto—and Stu would never stand for that.