Chicago Theater Review: YANK! A WWII LOVE STORY (Pride Films and Plays at the Pride Arts Center)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 19, 2018

in Theater-Chicago

A RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN STYLED MUSICAL
THAT ASKS AND TELLS

Call it the new nostalgia. In most ways, Yank! A WWII Love Story is an unashamedly conventional book musical, as predictable as pleasant. These fast-paced 140 minutes burst with peppy tap-dancing, torch songs, production numbers, solo turns, and feel-good storytelling. This is World War II set to rhythm and raising the roof.

What you won’t hear here, however, is “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” — though “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” would fit perfectly.

Because this 2010 off-Broadway confection — music by Joseph Zellnik; book and lyrics by brother David Zellnik — is a different take on the times. It spins a tale of American heroes fighting the Japanese and, inevitably, their own homophobic comrades. Using the frame of a newly discovered diary that traces a soldier’s story from 1943 to war’s end, Yank! stands in — and up — for the hidden histories of gay G.I.’s both in uniform and out. A happy and poignant Chicago premiere by Pride Films and Plays, David Zak’s enthralling staging celebrates the saga of Stu (Matthew Huston), a timid Midwestern lad drafted to defend his country — and himself.

Much here feels comfortingly familiar, especially the “we’re all in this together” or “it takes one of every kind” mix of man-boys drawn from all quarters to fill a platoon (but a lot more inclusive than Guadalcanal Diary). In this retro-tribute, Charlie Company of the 89th features the usual ethnic suspects: affable Rotelli (Xavier Euzarraga); colorful Czechowsi (Will Kazda); drill sergeant Sarge (Marc Prince); merry Melanie (Parker Guidry); African-American India (Raymond Goodall); and doomed Cohen (Brian Kulaga). It’s as American as a crazy quilt.

Then there’s a handsome if volatile private from “Jersey” named Mitch (William Dwyer). This all-American homosexual falls for sweet, shy Stu. And he’s not one-of-a-kind: These not-so-regular guys like to “act out” flamboyant characters from Gone with the Wind. Fiddle-dee-dee!

We also meet all-but-openly-queer Artie (John Marshall, Jr.), a correspondent for the servicemen’s Yank Magazine. This nearly flaming survivor recruits Stu as a photographer. The result, to paraphrase La Cage aux Folles, is army life lived and seen from an angle — basic training at the appropriately named Ft. Bliss, taking showers, watching movies, escapes to “Vaseline Alley,” shore leave, and barracks buddies’ bedtime.

Channeling big band swing, boogie-woogie, Lindy Hop and jive-jumping jitterbug (“Your Squad Is Your Squad”), the 15 songs, perfectly shaped by music director Robert Ollis and his five-person combo, combine musical shocks of recognition with vintage “Hollywood Canteen” crooner gems. “Polishing Shoes” is the squad’s pell-mell salute to routine rigors and rough-house fun. In “Click” (named for its taps as much as its friendship), Artie and Stu do just that. Lesbian Louise (Molly LeCaptain) delivers her tough-girl credo with “Get It, Got It, Good.” This lavender lament notwithstanding, Mitch’s first-act finale “You, You” would have busted the charts 74 years ago.

Plus we get period-perfect “radio classics,” like the achingly lovely “Blue Twilight,” “Rememb’ring You,” “My Soldier,” and the mock-miserable “The Saddest Gal What Am.” An accommodatingly straight romp, “Betty,” (as in Grable, not Davis) gets belted on a transport train: It’s a homage-crammed shout-out to Hollywood’s pin-up girls, pointedly including Judy Garland. Bubbling with Andrews Sisters ardor, Jenna Schoppe’s choreography can cut a rug, hoof up a hurricane, and beat me daddy, eight to the bar.

But all is not jubilation and push-ups. There are bigots among the boys, like Nate Stain’s vindictive Tennessee. But, along with the heartbreak of letters to and from home, comes “A Couple of Regular Guys,” the grunts’ wrenching fantasy song invoking a post-war Paradise.

Immediately following that plaintive duet comes “Light on Your Feet,” which is accompanied by a witch-hunt purge of “friends of Dorothy.” Even though the lovers can blend together beautifully in the tender-loving “Just True” — and Stu is convinced that gays will be tolerated by 1950 at the latest — dreams of domestic life seem far beyond reach.

A rollicking remembrance that opens both closets and hearts, Yank! lives up to its exclamation point. With the rainbow flag now planted over Iwo Jima, revisionism was never such fun.

photos by Paul Goyette

Yank! A WWII Love Story
Pride Films and Plays
Pride Arts Center – The Broadway, 4139 N. Broadway
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3:30; Wed (Jan. 31 & Feb. 7) at 7:30
ends on February 18, 2018 EXTENDED to March 18, 2018
for tickets, call 800.737.0984 or visit Pride Films and Plays

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Bruce Faygelson January 26, 2018 at 4:08 pm

I cannot believe that the Celebration Theatre in Los Angeles has not produced YANK!

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David Olson August 5, 2018 at 8:47 pm

I first heard some of the songs on Sirius Radio and immediately bought the CD. I have since fallen in love with the songs and would give anything to see a DVD recording of the show. Can you please tell me if there is one available for purchase. I have to see this story played out for myself. Thank you for any information you can provide.

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Tony Frankel, Editor-in-Chief August 6, 2018 at 10:46 pm

We don’t think there’s a DVD of any production, David.

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