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Jeff

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

REVIEW: Yank!

Review of the February 27 matinee performance at the York Theatre Company in New York City. Starring Bobby Steggert, Ivan Hernandez, Jeffry Denman and Nancy Anderson. Direction by Igor Goldin. Music, lyrics and book by David and Joseph Zellnik. 2 hours, 40 minutes, including intermission.  Adult language, themes and brief nudity.  Currently scheduled through March 21.


 
There is a constant state of duality in the new, much buzzed about musical Yank!, which both charms and beguiles the audience.  Heavy on sentiment and good will, the show also packs a surprising bite, especially in the closing twenty minutes or so of Act Two.  Much like the propaganda films it parodies, this show wears its patriotism and heart on its sleeve, while its political agenda is less obvious, and for good reason.  Brother writers David and Joseph Zellnik have subtitled their musical "A WWII Love Story," not "The Don't Ask, Don't Tell Musical."  Instead they have chosen to make their point by presenting very human emotions in a setting of hope, honor, fear and bravery.  War is hell, to be sure, but love can survive anything.

Yank! gets its title from an actual publication written by and for the servicemen and women during the second world war.  It tells the story of one young man, barely a man, who is terrified of dying, terrified of letting his company down, and even more terrified that he may actually be what he dreads the most, a homosexual.  The show takes us on his journey from clumsy and potentially dangerous recruit, ridiculed and hurt by the very men with whom he will see combat (basic training) through a lucky and fortuitous re-assignment as a photographer for Yank! Magazine. The duality of the plot works thusly: young Stu also finds he is on a journey of sexual awakening as well, from the shy closeted boy to falling in love with a fellow soldier, to the admitting (at least to himself) that he is a gay man.  Of course, there is no room for "fruits" as they say, in this man's Army, and when those two worlds collide it is a potentially catastrophic as being on the first wave to storm the beach at Iwo Jima.  Very serious themes - of the gay, war and political nature - give Yank! its backbone and gravitas.  But this is no downer of a show.  No.  All of it is told through the filter of a loving homage to all those 40's romances, war-buddy films, and propaganda reels.  We hear Stu's story through a journal he keeps, which constantly keeps us grounded, even as the events of his life swirl in and out of focus like a Rogers and Astaire dance number.

 
In keeping the show told as an homage to those iconic films, singers and dancers the Zellniks have justifiably created reasons for the characters to sing and dance.  And they cover all of the bases with smart dialogue and snappy songs crammed with clever plays on words, sung to tunes that range from subversively sexual torch songs ("Rememb'ring You"), to buddy-boy rallying cry numbers ("Betty," "Your Squad is Your Squad") to all out tap extravaganzas ("Credit to the Uniform").  And what would a 40's style homage be without the "your life is changing right now" song ("Click") or the "there's hope in the future" number ("A Couple of Regular Guys"), and, naturally, a Rodgers and Hammerstein inspired "dream ballet", here danced by Dream Stu (Joseph Medeiros) and Dream Mitch (Denis Lambert).  These dazzling numbers, amazingly choreographed by Jeffry Denman, and I do mean amazingly, as they look to be all out Broadway-sized extravaganzas even when there are only 2 to 8 people dancing at any one time.  Of course all of this is done on a stage that is smaller than your average dining room. 

If you've read any of the buzz about this show, you'll know that the "Ballet" seems to be a bone of contention for some critics and theatre goers.  To all of them, I say, "Feh!"  If they didn't include it, the same people would say they left out an important element of the very style the show seeks to emulate.  And, frankly, it does add to the evening, smoothly bringing us back to the lighter mood of the piece, after a rather jarring and very disturbing scenes that abruptly brought us into the harsh reality of war and the sexual politics of the times.  And, if nothing else, it gives us a chance to see Mr. Medeiros and Mr. Lambert at their finest - they are superb dancers, both.

The structure and tone of the piece demand attention to detail, all while giving off the air of simplicity, stereotype, and an age long gone.  And let's not forget the modern message we are being given through the foggy glass of War past.  Yank!, like the propaganda films it parodies (including an absolutely hilarious act two reenactment of a war film, here called, naturally, "The Bright Beyond"), is equal parts romantic patriotism and crafty subversion.  The difference here is that we aren't being sold war bonds.  We are being sold a love story between two heroic, courageous men.  At its best, Yank! makes us laugh and think.  Those jarring scenes I mentioned above, by the way, really bring the show to its heaviest moments, and they are necessary to the story and to the overall affect of the piece.  And for that, I give director Igor Goldin much credit.  These scenes are frightening in their realism and stark theatricality.  As young Stu is interrogated, he is also verbally and physically abused and humiliated, stripped to his underwear in a steaming pit under the glare of heat lamps and vicious questioning (it calls to mind the reports of torture in the prisons in Iraq).  Goldin shows a definite flare in these scenes, and an equally smooth touch as he finesses us back into a sweeter mood. 

If I had one negative criticism of the show it would be that adding a serious, if not quite as terrifying, break from all of the sunshine would be beneficial to both act one and to the final scenes as they are now.  An earlier "reality check" type scene might serve to let us know that this will not be a evening without import, and it might lessen the breakneck abruptness of the act two scenes as they stand now.  Now they are off-putting at least until your senses get you to where you understand what is happening, and by then the scenes have almost passed by.  They are too important to the show to be so shocking as to break the concentration.  Still, even as it is, Mr. Golding manages to create a cohesive evening that juggles a lot of substance and a lot of style.


By far though is the excellent cast of twelve, great singers, dancers and actors all.  The aforementioned Mr. Lambert and Mr. Medeiros play a variety of smaller roles in addition to their dream ballet duties.  The latter joins a trio that includes Zak Edwards and Todd Faulkner as the dual purpose "steno pool" and "girls of Gone with the Wind."  All three are hilarious as Southern sissies, who share and keep the secrets of all the Army men of a "certain stature," while bringing home the very sobering point that those secrets must be kept under a "passing for straight" veil, or else.  Mr. Faulkner also plays a very sobering Sergeant to the Charlie Company, typical in that his bark is worse than his bite and all of it because he is trying to keep his boys alive.  His is just one character in the mesh of types that the boys of Charlie Company represent.

Just as in movies of the type and time, the recruits represent a stereotypical cross-section of America, and all of the types here are presented with a wink and a nod, and just the right touch of heart, for they, like the rest of the show, serve a dual purpose.  On the surface, they are your Army buddy types: backwoods hick, Tennessee (Andrew Durand), book smart Northeasterner "Professor" (Christopher Ruth), right off the boat from Europe, fighting with the Americans "Rotelli" (David Perlman), and, of course, working class ethnic type from any borough of New York, Czechowski (Tally Sessions).  The guys will warm your heart with their easy-going style, and each manages to take their type and make it just a little more.  They also represent blatant bigotry, common sense, a European perspective ("guys kiss each other in Italy all the time"), and the peace-keeper/accepting of difference, respectively.  All four are terrific, but Mr. Durand and Mr. Sessions, who admittedly have the most to work with, really stand out in the ensemble.  Durand, in particular does an amazing job in bringing his character from annoying prick to seething bigot to over-boiling man of hate.  He tempers it all with some really funny zingers and some well-placed country-hick mannerisms.  Mr. Sessions, broad, genuine smile, used here as an acting devices as much as anything else makes him and his character the first person you look to for a reaction in any situation.


The lone female in the cast, Nancy Anderson, is a genuine highlight in a show full of them.  She literally plays a dozen or more women from the time.  In the title number alone, she plays at least four, going from man to man saying goodbye as she sends each off to war - the sad girlfriend, the proud American gal, the horny debutante, the scared mother - and does so be quick changes in step and a variety of kisses!  Ms. Anderson also possesses a truly beautiful singing instrument, easily changing her vocal stylings to suit the variety of songs she sings, ranging from the Dinah Shore-type, to the sultry torch singer to the peppy hop-to Army gal to the warbly operetta style.  She has virtually no lines and yet manages to create vivid characters with a look, a knowing smile and very telling eyes.  Of course, her costumes and wigs (designed by Tricia Barsamian and Ashley Ryan respectively) help, too - it even looks like she re-colors her eyebrows to match her many wigs.  Ms. Anderson makes her biggest impression with the role that has the most lines, and happens to be a real-life character, the lesbian and firmly closeted secretary to General MacArthur, the original don't ask, don't tell guy.  He knows she is what she is but she is far too valuable to him to turn her in.  It is that character who ultimately provides some safety and guidance for the three other main characters.


Trouble comes to the Charlie Company in the surprising form of "Hollywood" Mitch, a dashing, manly man with a huge helping of compassion, played suavely and with confidence by Ivan Hernandez.  It is all of those bold characteristics that draw Stu (and the audience) to Mitch.  Mr. Hernandez has a wonderful singing voice and a way about him the makes you just want to beg for his friendship.  He also plays conflicted gay man very well, adding nuance and variety to the various levels of anger, passion, shame and self-loathing the role requires.  A conflicting trouble comes to Charlie Company in the guise of savior - one Yank! journalist named Artie, who takes a shine and lascivious interest in Stu.  Played very well by Jeffry Denman, Artie is the subversive kind of sneak, who makes you feel grateful for every favor he does for you, and anger at all the ways you ultimately have to repay him.  Denman deftly goes between "passing straight" to outright queer poster boy in seconds, just by a change in stature or a sly grin.  He is immediately ingratiating, so much so, that even though you know it is coming, you are still taken aback when his darker side shows itself.  He is, as an actor, also a fine song and dance man, particularly in "Click" and "Credit to the Uniform."


Ultimately, though, the show rests on the young and extremely capable shoulders of Bobby Steggert one of New York's current "it" actors.  The difference here, though, is that he really has "it!"  All of it, whatever it is.  He has a gorgeous singing voice, be it in a solo, a harmonizing duet or as part of an ensemble blend.  And even though he is one of those stage presences that commands your attention no matter what else is going on, he is always careful not to be a stage hog, shifting focus off of himself when necessary or blending in with everyone else, too.  That you can't take your eyes off of him is your doing, not his.  (Perhaps that is "it.")  Mr. Steggert is my favorite kind of actor, too.  He is of the type that you never feel like he is acting first and foremost - that every current second that you share with him is all there ever is, was or will be.  And secondly, he does most of his acting from the neck up.  At any given moment you know exactly what his Stu is thinking, feeling on the outside, covering on the inside.  When Stu finally summons the courage to act on his desire to kiss Mitch, it is both magical and cathartic, as the audience and Mr. Steggert were there for every previous second of Stu's fear, desire, questioning and longing - all options weighed and the outcome uncertain.  Aside from his romantic moments with Mr. Hernandez (they have pitch perfect chemistry), and his song and dance moments with Artie (he and Mr. Denman also have fantastic chemistry)  Steggert really knows his way around a dramatic scene.  One of the most gut-wrenching scenes in recent seasons occurs when he is turned in for being gay and tortured into confession and naming names.  His agony is palpable.  But perhaps his best moment is when Stu ultimately confronts the man who turns him in, and gives him a hug of forgiveness.  It is a truly amazing moment in a show full of them.


So far, Yank!  is scheduled only through March 21st at the York Theatre Company, but rumors were flying during intermission that the show will extend and possibly move to a bigger venue.  We will all be fortunate if either becomes the case.  But if neither happens, get yourself to the Theatre at St. Peter's Church, and fast.  This is one entertaining and thought-provoking show you'll regret you missed.

Grade: A!

(Photos by Carol Rossegg.) 

More information on the show can be found at http://www.yorktheatre.org/ or http://www.yankthemusical.com/.

Comments?  Leave one here or email me at jkstheatrescene@yahoo.com
Jeff

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