David and Joseph Zellnik’s new musical, “Yank!,” is one of the most heartening theatrical experiences in years. This original production boldly highlights what history books have long left out — stories about being gay in the military.
In 2005, this little show sparked interest at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, and now, mounted as a full-scale production by Park Slope’s Gallery Players, not a line of it rings flat. The current cast is superb, starring Broadway actors like Nancy Anderson (“Wonderful Town” and “A Class Act”), Jeffry Denman (“The Producers”) — who doubles as choreographer, and Bobby Steggert (“110 in the Shade”). Sure, the big names make this production buzz-worthy, but the real pull of the show is that it’s a universal love story.
The musical’s plot line centers on the newly drafted Stu, who’s smitten with a squadron-mate named Mitch, the most handsome stud of Company C. David Zellnik’s book ingeniously charts the twists of their love affair, tracing their romance from basic training at Fort Bliss; this is a unique coming-of-age story that pulls no punches and honestly depicts how gays lived during World War II.
The current production has been tightened, and its framing device changed, to appropriate a new character. The show still works like a memory play, but instead of Stu being morphed into a stroke victim at curtain up, the tale now begins with “a 20-something guy in a baseball cap, living in the present.”
Sounds more hip than the original?
You bet. Not only can this young character deftly introduce us to the diary of Private Stewart, but he sets a more vital tone to the story, and establishes the significance of “Yank” magazine (the periodical by the serviceman, for the serviceman) from the get-go.
Incidentally, “Yank” was a real publication. According to the program notes, “the magazine grew to become the most widely read and popular magazine in the history of the U.S. Army.” So the show’s title carries both a concrete and symbolic meaning here.
When not speculating over the plot, I went in for the smart musical numbers. The Zellniks’ unforced sincerity makes the lyrics potent, and each song touches on an aspect of the human condition. This is no pastiche of show tunes, as the show joyously reclaims 1940s Hollywood platoon flicks and Broadway musicals. There is the distinctive sound of boogie-woogie, big band and swing-styles, all pulsating in syncopated rhythms. I found the songs seamlessly dovetailed with the unfolding action, not just a putting of lyrics through colored hoops.
Arguably, the opening number of the show, “Remembering You,” is the most affecting one. But my real fave of the evening came in Act Two, when Stu and Mitch share the emotionally riveting song, “Just True.”
The choreography of this show is brilliant. Musical veteran Denman serves as top-notch choreographer here. His dance routines are urgent and sinewy, packed with muscular power and graceful precision.
And beyond the dancing, the acting here is solid. Steggert, as Stu, strikes just the right balance between awkward naivete and canny intelligence, while Maxime de Toledo, as Mitch, has a movie star’s swagger.
Denman is also notable as Artie, the journalist who recruits Stu to become a photojournalist for “Yank”Â magazine. Artie is a suave operator, and Denman hits the nail on the head in portraying his character with a breezy nonchalance. Interestingly, Artie is at ease in the uncharted territory of being a homosexual in World War II, which makes him a kind of hero-beacon to those characters befuddled by their sexual orientation. Denman’s dancing is tops; nobody in the show holds a candle to his tapping feet.
Nancy Anderson, playing all of the female roles, executes a real tour de force as she single-handedly embodies the spirit of femininity in the musical. Her wit crystallizes in the wryly-written song, “Saddest Gal What Am.” Then she later snaps everybody to attention in the stridently funny number, “Credit to the Uniform.”
The show never apologizes for its honesty. And its non-fussy props and uniforms (courtesy of Uncle Sam) prove the old maxim: Less is more. Directed by Igor Goldin, the show is briskly paced and never drags.
When the houselights went up at the end of “Yank!,” the audience (including me) was on its feet and firmly applauding. This little musical, which first earned its rep at the New York Theatre Festival, takes another step forward with this full-scale production. All the careful tweaking over the past two years has added a rich patina to the original musical, and the results are worth smiling about.
“Yank!” is running through Nov. 11 at the Gallery Players (199 14th St. at Fourth Avenue in Park Slope). Tickets are $18. For show times and information, call (718) 595-0457 or visit www.galleryplayers.com.