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.