Yank!, the durable and impressive musical currently playing at midtown’s Theater at St. Peter’s in a York Theater Company production, tells two different kinds of love stories. One is a fairly familiar one, told frequently, though frustratingly, for it should be unnecessary: the love that dare not speak its name. Conceived by brothers David (who penned the book and lyrics) and Joseph Zellnik (who wrote the show’s music), Yank!, subtitled “A WWII Love Story,” is the story of Stu (Bobby Steggert), whose great awakening occurred against the backdrop of the greatest generation.
Stu reports for service in the army at the age of 18. As he narrates to the audience, he knows he feels different, and expresses awkwardness with living – including showering – in such close confines with his fellow servicemen. That includes Mitch (Ivan Hernandez), a bunkmate with far more experience than Stu in many things (but as it turns out, not everything). It doesn’t take long before Stu realizes he has romantic feelings for Mitch, and it comes as a surprise to both that Mitch feels the same way.
The other love story at play in Yank!, though, is for storytelling itself. Building off of the Zellniks’ template, director Igor Goldin has crafted a production that hearkens back to an earlier era of musicals, specifically, the Hollywood canteen style of the 1940s. The brothers pay tribute to and utilize movie and musical clichés of that bygone time period – characters quote Irving Berlin and watch movies designed to boost morale or appeal to their testosterone. Some of these choices work better than others (an eleventh-hour ballet performance, though well-choreographed, feels shoehorned in and slows down the action).
Another choice that subverts some of Yank!’s power is a change made to the show’s framing device since its earlier incarnations at the New York Musical Festival in 2005, Gallery Players in 2007 (where it took home a New York IT Award for Best Musical), and the Diversionary Theatre in San Diego in 2008. Earlier, Stu narrated the show from a senior citizens’ home in his old age.
Now, Steggert plays a young gay man in San Francisco who finds Stu’s war-time diary and reads from it to the audience, finding solidarity with a kindred spirit from 65 years ago. This decision doesn’t quite mesh with the musical’s homage to 1940s war stories. It comes off as amateurish in comparison to the rest of the play, as though the creative decided it was necessary to make Stu's parallels to modern problems overt. Also, it removes the audience from the action more than it actually moves it along.
Still, that central story will grab the heartstrings of anyone with an open mind and an open heart. When Stu’s squad goes to fight on the frontline, Stu works separately as a photographer for Yank, the magazine written by and for servicemen during the war, under the tutelage of Artie (Jeffry Denman, who does double duty here – he has also served as the show’s choreographer.) Artie is a closeted soldier who educates Stu on the war, journalism, and, presumably, no-strings sex.
Perhaps in a bid to appeal to general audiences, Goldin and the Zellniks choose to jump ahead a year in the life of Stu and his erstwhile bunkmates, thus depriving the audience of crucial development of the lead character. He goes from being a young virgin to accepting who he is as a sexually active gay male in a bracket offstage. It isn’t that the action that follows, in which Stu and Mitch reunite with disastrous effect, isn’t important, but that action is foreordained; it feels like we only get part of their story.
Hernandez is terrific as the conflicted soldier caught at a crossroads between two paths of divergent risk, and he and Steggert share believable chemistry. Steggert nails the awkwardness of a young man trying to find himself and is wonderful when Yank! calls for him to sing and dance, but in many moments, he doesn’t seem to be acting in period. He delivers Stu’s dialogue with the casual inflections of a more contemporary character. This doesn’t detract from the vulnerable emotions he displays, particularly near the show’s end, but it makes him appear less polished than the rest of this mighty ensemble; there is a hesitancy that permeates his portrayal which is absent from that of his co-stars.
Other standouts of that ensemble include Denman, who is tough and yet also envious of Stu’s feelings for Mitch. His choreography, too, is spot-on. Tally Sessions also makes the most of a less featured role.
But enough about the men. Nancy Anderson dazzles as the lone actress in Yank!, playing a variety of roles include the mothers and girlfriends left behind, female pinups, a stern (though perceptive) WAC, and several singers embodying the style of 1940s female crooners heard on the radio. Her radiant presence elevates the show. It doesn’t just preach to the choir; she provides the numbers that turn the audience into said choir. It is a star turn that in no way outshines the work.
Yank! remains a lively piece of theater with its combination of a talented cast, great musical numbers, and an important, relevant message. It’s definitely a show worth enlisting in.