Saturday, November 03, 2007

Yank! WW II Musical Is A Real Find

Going to any play or musical Off Broadway or Off Off Broadway is always a risk. Most of the time, when you're checking out a new work that doesn't have the stamp of approval of being acclaimed in London or major artists attached, you're in for a bumpy night. This is especially true if you're going to a gay-themed play. Since I write for The Advocate, I check out those works even more frequently than most and therefore I see a lot more bad gay plays than other types. So being inherently interested in the subject matter doesn't make you easier on them; it makes you a lot harder. (I assume the same is true for people who regularly attend plays by or about blacks, Latinos, Asians, etc. They've seen every cliche a million times before.)

So despite some friendly reviews from theater websites, my expectations were low when heading to Park Slope in Brooklyn to see a new musical, "Yank!" about gay soldiers in World War II by two brothers, Joseph and David Zellnick. The bare bones "set" -- no set to speak of -- didn't inspire confidence either. So what a delightful surprise to say that the show is entertaining as it is, could easily get better and deserves a future life Off Broadway.

The discovery of a journal in an antique store in San Francisco bookends the story of wide-eyed Stu (a very charming Bobby Steggert) joining the Army after Pearl Harbor and finding himself drawn to Mitch (Maxime de Toledo), another grunt who is so strapping his nickname is "Hollywood." (Stu's nickname becomes a play on "light in the loafers," though the guys in his squad don't really think that.) They go through the stress of basic training, Stu finds fellow travelers in the steno pool and gets recruited for "Yank!" magazine by a more defiantly open gay man who takes Stu under his wing. Misunderstandings, witch hunts, a supportive lesbian in the upper ranks and Iwo Jima all come into play during the two and a half hour show (including intermission).

The songs range from serviceable to memorable, all in the vein of music of the Forties, with big band ballad "Remembering You" as a touchstone. The title song "Yank" is a highlight, as is "Tap" where tap-dancing becomes a metaphor for realizing you're gay (or rather, celebrating it), and "Your Squad Is Your Squad" uses the full ensemble to terrific effect. The cast is solid, with everyone cast for their acting first and singing second. Steggert is a good foot shorter than Toledo, and they get a lot of mileage out of Mitch towering over and enveloping Stu to great old Hollywood effect. Nancy Anderson plays all the women in the show, including a clever first scene where the guys say goodbye to their gals before basic training and she switches from one soldier's sweetheart to the next. Her highlight is a Hollywood musical spoof on movie night. Jefrey Denman is v good in a supporting role as Artie, the Yank! writer who shows Stu the ropes and doubles as the choreographer for the show. The two leads are very able, with Steggert easily shouldering the central, dominating role of Stu. I'd seen him once before in "The Music Teacher," a poor play/opera by Wallace and Allen Shawn. If the show has any future life, Steggert should be a part of it.

As for improvements, there's a second act ballet a la "Carousel" that nudges the story forward a bit but is entirely unnecessary. Given the constraints, it's decently done, but it slows the show down dramatically. Eliminating that would also mean hopefully eliminating the scene of the three steno pool male secretaries dressed in 'Gone With The Wind" garb to introduce the dance and make all too clear that the dancer performing the piece is meant to be Stu; it's very out of tone with the rest of the show, even if amusing on its own. This isn't Charles Busch territory -- otherwise the show is quite realistic and any flights of fantasy are limited to the character's dreams.

Finally, I'm not a fan of intermissions -- I think most plays and musicals would benefit without having one. In this case, if it's not cut, I'd move the intermission up and have it take place right when Stu insists on heading out to Iwo Jima, perhaps w a further musical number there using the whole cast about heading off to battle. That would let the more "obvious" break that they used be part of the second act momentum and add to the tension, rather than having it dissipate during the break.

Yes, when you see a show at this early stage in its life, everyone's a show doctor. But it's a sign of the show's promise that you can't help thinking about how to make it even better. And as is, it's entertaining with a solid cast and well worth the $18 -- it's far better than any new musical I've seen since "Spring Awakening." Catch it before it ends Nov 11.

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