I had been hearing some terrific word of mouth about the new musical Yank, which is currently playing its first fully staged engagement at the York Theatre Company. But when I saw some of the online promotional videos, I sensed a bit too much earnestness for my taste, and wondered whether the show would set my teeth on edge.
Well, there's always a danger in seeing things out of context, and I'm happy to report that, in context, almost all of Yank is a delight. The brothers David Zellnik (book and lyrics) and Joseph Zellnik (music) have been working on Yank since 2005, reshaping it in various workshop productions. The effort seems to have paid off, as the brothers Zellnik have crafted what could be, with a few nips and tucks, a world-class show. Director Igor Goldin has certainly had a hand in making the piece as strong as it is, including numerous smart, funny, and moving staging choices.
But chief among the show's assets are leading men Bobby Steggert and Ivan Hernandez, who bring the story of two World War II soldiers, who happen to fall in love, to vivid and palpable life. Steggert has been a personal favorite since I was captivated by his unassuming yet sympathetic presence in the recent revival of 110 in the Shade. Subsequent appearances in The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, or, The Friends of Doctor Rushower and the dearly departed Ragtime have solidified his place as a very talented and promising young actor. Hernandez was one of the best parts of the underrated Romantic Poetry, and he brings the same strong voice, square jaw, and natural presence to his work in Yank. Steggert and Hernandez work especially well together: their sexually charged courtship scenes have great intensity, and a palpable sense of both apprehension and desire.
The musical idiom and physical presentation of Yank represent an homage of sorts to the music and movies at the time of World War II. The style is conventional, but deliberately so, featuring schmaltzy swells of romantic music and even the occasional off-stage chorus. Populating the stage are a number of Army-movie stock characters: the tough-talking redneck (played by Boston Conservatory alum Andrew Durand), the thickly accented Italian, and the glasses-wearing book-reading nerd from Boston (also played by a BoCo alum, Christopher Ruth). On hand to warble the numerous '40s-style radio love ballads is Nancy Anderson, excelling in a part written especially to suit her numerous talents.
Possibly the most and least remarkable feature of Yank is its gay love story. "Most" because it sets out specifically to explore a gay romance, but "least" in the sense that, for much of the show, the fact that both of the lovers are men is irrelevant. Of course, this is the 1940s, and eventually the show has to deal with the incredible odds that this love affair is up against. The show gets a tad preachy toward the end, but Yank isn't really a message musical, although it is progressive in its own retro way. The show got me thinking about its place in the progression of gays in musicals, and for me, despite its conventionality, Yank really seemed to be something new. We've had many musicals with and about gays to be sure, but I can't think of another mainstream show in which we witness the process of the characters falling in love. (If I'm somehow forgetting a show, no doubt my readers will disabuse me. Or just abuse me.)
The show also makes effective and meaningful use of dance. In one number, Jeffry Denman's tap choreography becomes a metaphor for showing Steggert's gay neophyte the ropes both in terms of surviving being gay in the army as well as getting in a little frisky R&R. There's also a dream ballet late in the second act, which must have seemed like a great idea on paper. I mean, this is the '40s, after all, when the dream ballet was de rigueur. Unfortunately, the placement and tone of the sequence don't work. The ballet is played straight, so to speak, and is devoid of irony. It might perhaps have worked in act 1 as a campy fantasy sequence, but in its current placement it merely slows the show down.
Yank needs a bit of work, act 2 in particular, in which some of the characters' actions don't feel properly motivated. For instance when Tennessee, the resident redneck, catches the two lovers in flagrante delicto, it's not quite clear why the homophobic Tennessee wouldn't just rat these guys out. There's a number called "Your Squad Is Your Squad" that tries to provide some dramatic justification, but it wasn't quite working for me. But whatever minor flaws it may have would seem eminently fixable. On the whole, Yank is a stirring and enjoyable show, representing a very promising debut for the brothers Zellnik.