Thursday, February 25, 2010

Yank! A W.W.II Love Story

Yank! A W.W.II Love Story, the York Theatre Company’s new musical that opened last night at the Theatre at St. Peter’s, is sheer delight from start to finish. Created in the style of the unabashedly romantic and exuberant musicals of yesteryear, it offers an involving love story, rousing music and charming songs inspired by the tunes of the 1940s, terrific choreography -- loved that tap and the dream ballet -- and right-on-the-mark acting and singing. I hope it moves to Broadway. It should. In the meantime, I expect many Drama Desk nominations this spring.

The show arouses more than just a sense of nostalgia, though. Yank!, directed by Igor Goldin, is as timely as anything on stage at the moment because the young lovers in this story happen to be two men, serving in an Army in which the current “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy would seem unimaginably broadminded.

Bobby Steggert (left in photo), fresh from his role as Younger Brother in the recent Broadway revival of Ragtime, should expect to be nominated for best actor in a musical for his performance as Stu, a timid midwestern teenager who has been drafted in 1943 and ends up a photographer for Yank magazine. Steggert first played Stu in a 2007 production by the Gallery Players in Brooklyn and was so drawn in by the role that when he signed on for Ragtime he requested a furlough to leave Broadway to do this show Off-Broadway. That request was denied, but when Ragtime closed after a short run he was free after all. His commitment to the role shows. Nothing is between him and his character.

The other cast members inhabit their characters as well. Ivan Hernandez (right) is convincing as Mitch, the man Stu loves. Tall, dark and handsome, his nickname around the barracks is Hollywood. Mitch has a fiancé at home, but responds to Stu’s advances and soon the two men are engaged in a secret love affair.

This angle of forbidden love is found in many musicals; the only slant that makes this different is that the relationship is between two people of the same sex. Around this, a classic musical takes place, with numbers that could have been on stage in a 1940s musical. “Betty” offers the funny standard of love sick soldiers passing around their pictures of movie stars -- Betty Grable is the favorite -- “Your Squad Is Your Squad” is the comic male bonding camaraderie song of military comedies and “Click” is a lively tap dance number worthy of Astaire and Rogers, performed by Stu and Artie (Jeffrey Denham of the original White Christmas cast who is this show’s choreographer). The audience went wild, applauding and cheering. I haven’t been to a musical that garnered this much audience enthusiasm in a long time.

The show is nicely framed by having a contemporary young man, also played by Steggert, intrigued by a World War II soldier’s journal he has bought at a thrift shop. It’s Stu’s journal, and it transports us into his story. At the end, this young man reads the final passage, from May 1963, closing the tale on that long-ago love affair. A moving way to finish.

Nancy Anderson, an actress I’ve loved since I saw her as Mona in A Class Act, is her usual sassily appealing self playing all the female roles. I don’t know why she’s not up there in the big star musical comedy category with the likes of Kristin Chenoweth because that’s where she belongs.

The cast also includes Andrew Durand, Zak Edwards, Todd Faulkner, Denis Lambert, Joseph Medeiros, David Perlman, Christopher Ruth and Tally Sessions.

Yank! has music by Joseph Zellnik, with book and lyrics by David Zellnik, his brother. The set is design by Ray Klausen, costumes by Tricia Barsamian and lighting by Ken Lapham. It was originally presented at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2005.

In a Time Out New York interview, the Zellnik brothers say they had been longing to create a Rodgers and Hammerstein-type show, with all the beauty, simplicity and openhearted emotion of those musicals. “Musicals have developed this ironic pose of making fun of the fact that they are musicals,” Joe said. “And we thought, ‘Is there some way to get back to storytelling, with people singing songs because they feel something keenly and they want to express it in song?’”

He happened to be reading Coming Out Under Fire, Allan Bérube’s history of gays and lesbians who served in the military during World War II. The Zellniks realized they could write a sweet, old-fashioned musical with an historic slant. David then interviewed as many gay veterans as he could find to make the show as historically plausible as possible.

The New York Times had an interesting front page feature on Tuesday about how the theme of gay shows has shifted away from the politically messaged plays of the 1980s and 90s, such as The Norman Heart and Angels in America, to ones that emphasis the love and the personal relationship. Seven such shows will be opening in NYC in the next few weeks.

As I was leaving the theatre I saw Jim Morgan, York’s producing artistic director, in the lobby and told him how much I loved the show. He thanked me and told me to tell my friends. I said, “I will. I’m a critic.” So, my friends, you have been told. Catch this show while you can.

Tickets, currently on sale through March 21, are available by calling (212) 935-5820 or by visiting Performances are at the York Theatre Company's home at The Theatre at Saint Peter's, 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue.

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