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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Yank! first saw the light of day at the 2005 New York Musical Theater Festival. It had a brief run with the Brooklyn Gallery Players last year which is when Bobby Steggert came aboard as the show's hero and Nancy Anderson as the one female to assume multiple personas with a flip of a wig and a new costume. To prove the validity of the old cliché about the silver lining to be found in every cloud, Yank!'s move to the York Theatre Company, that invaluable incubator of new musicals, again has Steggert in the lead due to the sadly premature closing of the Broadway revival of Ragtime (review) in which he was sensational as the revolution smitten Younger Brother.
You couldn't wish for a more engaging actor than Steggert to play Stu, the young innocent who as a World War II draftee learns about life, soldierly solidarity ("Your Squad Is Your Squad"), the horrors of war and, of course love (—- a love that dare not show itself and certainly should not be recorded in a journal. But though Stu is this nostalgic wartime story's pivotal character, the York production also boasts a strong ensemble to portray its cross section of soldiers from all walks of life. That includes the charismatic Jeffry Denman who, besides enlivening the stage as the quick-talking, fleet-footed Artie Goldberg, is the man responsible for the choreography that boosts Yank!'s watchability factor.
The chameleon Nancy Anderson, who did a similar all-the-women gig in Jolson & Co (also at the York, in 1999), is also aboard and terrific — whether she's a mom sending her boy to basic training, a Betty Grable pinup girl, an Andrew Sisters type or USO singer, a pragmatic officer or a nurse in a cleverly stagedly corny B- movie.
Yank! is the kind of old-fashioned musical that makes you feel as if you're watching an amalgam of World War II movies and listening to some old long playing records of swing music by the Glenn Miller band and the Andrew sisters. Thus, if all the characters seem a little like stereotypes of the G.I. Joes who were thrown together in a war fought by an across-the-board draft rather than a volunteer service corps, that's part of this show's charm and intent. It's a memory piece triggered by a diary found in a junk shop by Steggert who, as narrator/story teller merges into the character of the diary's author. The ensuing story as well as the songs explore the pastiche genre. It's a typically bittersweet wartime love story, except that it's Stu and not a girl who falls in love with Mitch who epitomizes the tall, dark and handsome leading men of this period.
The diary device effectively launches this musical trip down this well traveled but ever emotionally engaging and historically interesting memory lane. The pastiche songs are pleasant and melodic and the lyrics don't strain unnecessarily for their rhymes. It would be nice if at least a few of the songs created to evoke their role models would also be the sort of breakout tunes that embed themselves in your ear. That said, it's unfair to judge a musical score on a first encounter and though you're not likely to be humming a single Yank! tune as you exit the theater or during your morning shower, the songs are enjoyable and apt within the context of the book.
Most importantly, Jeffry Denman's choreography goes a long way to bring out the best in the Zellnik score. " Click," the tap-dancing number that bring's Denman on stage as the fun loving, unabashedly gay Artie is a case in point. The way Artie indoctrinates Stu to the possibilities of sexual adventures cleverly and enjoyably integrates plot, music and dance ("The world's at war/rule are suspended/ whole world's . . .upended!/ quick let's click").
Considering the size of the performance space Denman's using the pastiche genre to introduce an Oklahoma-like dream ballet is dazzling for its can-do daring even though the end result feels somewhat clunky in this confined space. As for the staging overall, Igor Goldin's direction keeps the pace steady and insures that the snapshot journal entries transition smoothly into active scenes.
Ray Klausen relies on the book and the performers to carry the story forward without glitzy scenery. A few basic props and some large deftly re-arranged moveable panels steer us through Stu's boy to manhood saga — from his basic training. . . to his stint as a photographer for Yank, the weekly Army magazine from which the play takes its title . . . to a post-war veteran's hospital. At one point those panels and much used bunk bed create a raised screen for Nancy Anderson to do her bit in that already mentioned B-movie weepie.
Klausen's scenic design includes a handsome proscenium covered with Life-look-alike covers of Yank, the magazine for which the musical takes its name. The magazine also gets a peppy song for Stu and the ensemble (It ain't for the fickle//And it's only a nickel/Just regular types/Airing their gripes/Not sentimental like Stars and Stripes).
Tricia Barsamian's costumes contribute mightily to all of Nancy Anderson's character switches though, according to an audience member who's a World War II veteran, there are a few minor inaccuracies in the sargeant's gear (the Eisenhower style short jackets weren't worn during the years depicted and his status does not call for an officer's hat).
A scene in which Stu defends his working for Yank instead of wielding a gun to Mitch is something of a precursor to political action for equality for blacks (who were segregated and relegated to non-career service until Harry Truman's presidency) and gays in the military ("No going back--not now/Too many know to go back and hide/To go back in disguise/ hundreds of thousands/Who felt lost and alone before/Have found each other in the war"). However, per the title tag, a WWII Love Story, this is first and foremost a musical romance. The Zellnik brothers are leaving it to Congress to duke it out over the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Their aim is to dish up entertainment with a big dollop nostalgia and hearttug. Their message, in a tweet: It takes as much courage to make love as to make war.