By Patrick Christiano
The York Theater Company’s new musical, YANK! set during World War II weaves a compelling romantic tale about two gay servicemen long before the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. Openly gay brothers, Joseph Zellnik (music) and David Zellnik (book & lyrics), have created a musical in the old fashioned style of the period, which echoes shades of pop music from the era, while crafting a timely tale that delves into questions of prejudice, courage and survival.
The story follows the relationship of two men, Stu (Bobby Steggert) and Mitch (Ivan Hernandez), who meet during basic training, and fall in love. Stu is a naïve young recruit, who rather quickly learns to accept himself, while Mitch, a macho slightly older hunk, struggles a losing battle to accept his attraction for the younger Stu. A love triangle develops with the introduction of an openly gay character Artie (Jeffry Denman), the editor of Yank (a magazine that actually existed), which Stu decides to work for as a photographer in lieu of fighting on the front lines. Artie more or less mentors Stu while vying for his affections.
The delightful pop music is reminiscent of tunes by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and even the Gershwins, but much of the score sounds repetitive, while the lyrics are often fresh and amusing. The opening number “Remembering You” is a standout that gets a final reprise to close out the evening. Other songs that make a nice impression are “Betty,” “A Couple of Regular Guys,” and “Click,” an invigorating tap number performed by Steggert and Denman, who is also the show’s choreographer.
The book, although uneven, is at its best encapsulating the awkward relationship of Stu and Mitch with the moments leading up to their first kiss followed by Mitch’s denial of what just happened. The story shifts focus and hits high marks in the second act with the tumultuous events surrounding the discovery of Stu’s journal, which explicitly details their affair and sheds incriminating revelations about Artie.
The dynamic ensemble headed by Bobby Steggert shines under Igor Goldin’s deft direction. They all sing, dance and act beautifully, but Steggert, fresh from his duties in the recent revival of Ragtime, is especially exceptional turning in a finely nuanced performance that is most moving. And Hernandez as the closeted Mitch is a well cast tall, dark and handsome juxtaposition to Steggert’s vulnerability. Nancy Anderson aptly fits several of the female roles ranging from a lesbian secretary to a Betty Grable like radio entertainer. Jeffrey Denman is very funny as Artie breathing life into the character with a comic flair that rings with visceral truth, and his choreography for the evening is buoyantly spontaneous.
From audience reaction look for this one to be extended, but book your tickets now or you may miss one the season’s best Off-Broadway hits.
Yank! is now playing at the Theatre at St. Peter’s Church in the Citigroup Center, 619 Lexington Ave at 54th Street through March 21. For tickets call 212- 935-5820 or www.yorktheatre.org on the web.