Friday, March 26, 2010


Bobby Steggert and Jeffry Denman

Off Broadway at the York Theatre Company, the musical YANK, which had been popping up here and there in readings, festivals, and a short run with the Gallery Players, finally got the attention it deserved. Named after the military magazine of the same name, YANK is part World Ward II. nostalgia trip and part history lesson––a history you never got in high school. This is a tuneful old fashioned musical in the spirit of Broadway’s golden era that follows the adventures of Stu, an 18 year old private who happens to be gay. He enters the Army feeling totally alone, but soon comes to find out there are hundreds of people just like him in the service. He falls in love with Mitch, a he-man of a soldier who no one would suspect is gay. The two forge a secret relationship, though it is one that is destined for failure. Mitch is too afraid of how to survive the real world as a gay man and chooses a traditional path, but Stu finds the courage to be himself, though it causes heartbreaking traumas along the way. He is befriended by Artie, a reporter for YANK MAGAZINE, who helps him out by giving him a safe job as photographer. Safe, that is, until he and Mitch are discovered kissing by another soldier who reports them and causes Stu to be imprisoned as many gay soldiers were. A lesbian official from the Women’s Army Corps arranges to get Stu released with the choice of going to LA for five years in prison or fighting on the front lines. Hoping to catch up with Mitch, Stu chooses the front lines. After killing three men, Stu lucks out with an honorable discharge and hunts Mitch down in a military hospital in Hawaii. As happy as the reunion is, Mitch cannot imagine a life with Stu as a couple and so Stu flees to San Francisco where he lives out his life, we assume as an open and productive gay man.

The show is musicalized with wonderful harmonies that remind us of the 1940s, but the songs are used in terms of contemporary musical theatre. Many of the songs are up beat with a sense of humor, some are merely for atmosphere, and some are emotionally rich. There is a wonderful group number, “Betty,” where the soldiers all express their longing for their favorite pinup girl and dreaming of home. “Click” shows Artie introducing Stu to gay life, furthering the metaphor of the song’s title with tap dancing. All of the choreography is delightful, including a lovely dream ballet between two men in the second act. Jeffry Denman is choreographer as well as playing Artie.

Stu is a monumental role––asking the actor to go through a roller coaster of emotions, to sing like gangbusters and to tap dance. Bobby Steggert, that wonderful “Mother’s Younger Brother” from the recent RAGTIME revival, proves equal to the task. He is truly wonderful and fills the role as if he had been the character in a former life. Ivan Hernandez is Mitch, singing with a big baritone and dominating the stage with his masculine presence. As tough as his exterior is, he is equally soft and sensitive whenever he is drawn close to Bobby Steggert. Nancy Anderson plays all of the women in the show with the help of many wigs. She serves as an entertaining reprieve from the drama, performing mostly as various radio singers. Her one plot character, the WAC, is an intriguing and contradictory lesbian trying to survive by making herself indispensable to her superiors. The rest of the cast is well played with an energetic ensemble of able voice and dancing skill.

Igor Goldin has directed the production economically on Ray Klausen’s ultra simple set, with a surprising variety of stage pictures that would tell the story alone if you couldn’t hear a line or lyric. Joseph Zellnik is the composer and David Zellnik is the author of the book and lyrics. They have achieved a little bit of amazement: a tuneful, entertaining musical that not only reveals some hidden history, but has something relevant to say about the way humans relate to each other today.

Friday, March 5, 2010


This season in New York we are seeing an unusual number of gay themed plays in commercial venues. There are always a number of them in the Fringe of Off Off Broadway, but the topic is rarely handled with much force on Broadway. Even Off Broadway, where the gay play could show up more often, it really doesn’t. However, now we have THE PRIDE and a revival of BOYS IN THE BAND Off Broadway, as well as LA CAGE AUX FOLLES coming over from London and a new play, NEXT FALL. The really impressive thing about Geoffrey Nauffts’ new play is that it tackles contemporary gay life in a fresh way. Two key issues serve as the play’s main point of discussion: gay people rectifying their lives with religion and that still relevant age-old problem of what happens when one in a gay couple is hospitalized and the other is shut out by his family as not being a true member of the family. The partner has no say over what happens to his spouse as the family moves in to do what they think is best. This situation is ripe for all prejudices to rear their ugly heads and devastate the partner and friends of the sick gay person. Though marriage is never discussed in the play, it is implicit that this very case is the chief reason gay couples should be able to be married. Quite simply, they need to be protected against the prejudiced families “doing what is best” for the children they don’t really know and certainly don’t understand. So, we have one member of the gay couple nursing in the hospital and as his redneck Republican divorced parents show up, having no idea that he’s gay or that he has a partner in life, the partner and two friends hang out in the waiting room for a chance for non-family members to visit the patient. From this position, in flashback, we get scenes of the couple meeting, moving in together, going through ups and downs and building a life. This is a rich depiction of a gay couple, without any of the usual stereotypical trappings that are accepted in many other plays and films. We get to see how their individual family experiences formed their character, how they identify with and reject their parents’ values to form their own person. Although the topic is essentially serious, Nauffts infuses his play with gems of comedy and the combination is wholly entertaining, relevant and puts forth important questions without soap boxing. We know where the author stands for sure, but the ideas are put forth in a way that simply ask the audience to think about what has occured––what occurs every day right at home.

NEXT FALL started last season Off Broadway with an unknown cast of very good actors, who luckily moved with the show to Broadway. All of the roles are so good, that any number of appropriate stars could have been lured to play the roles on Broadway. Perhaps, if the show can run long enough, we will get some interesting celebrity casting with replacements. Not that the show requires stars, but we all know a star or two could keep the show running and bring in new audiences that might not normally go to see a gay play. Whatever the future may be, the very good cast of the moment is headed by Patrick Breen and Patrick Heusinger as the couple. Connie Ray is the mother and Cotter Smith is the father. Maddie Corman and Sean Dugan are the friends. They are, one and all, superb. Sheryl Kaller has directed the production with a lovely sense of pace––taking the time needed in the emotional scenes and guiding the comedy moments to elicit all the right laughs. Wilson Chin has designed a useful unit set of a stylish hospital waiting room that can quickly transform into the couple’s apartment, a park setting and a rooftop party. A gaggle of producers are listed over the title, but topping the list is Elton John and his partner David Furnish, who saw the worthiness of moving this substantial work to the Broadway stage where it could be seen by a wider public. Here’s hoping for the full treatment––Tony Award, movie version, Oscar.