Deborah Mae Hill leading the ensemble of YANK!
Music by Joseph Zellnik, Book & lyrics by David Zellnik
Directed by Michael Drury
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2015 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved
A young man named Stu (Ben Gierhart) is drafted into the Army during World War II. He joins a squad comprised of a representative sample of America: Jew, Immigrant, Hayseed, Brooklyn toughie, etc. It’s the cliché of every Hollywood war movie of the time, except there are no Negroes of course: segregation was the rule of the day in 1943. So was brutal discrimination against homosexuals. As YANK! tells Stu’s coming of age story it takes care to inject notes of bracing reality into the cliché until it has fairly deconstructed the form.
The musical format affords plenty of opportunity to evoke nostalgia through a score that effectively mimics 1940’s era songs, particularly when the stage is taken by Deborah Mae Hill as a series of wartime sirens, but Stu’s story is not an easy one, and the script doesn’t flinch from the discrimination, betrayal, and punishment that he must face.
So the motivation for Pandora to embrace this show is clear. YANK! is a canny blend of period recreation and modern-day perspectives on gays in uniform wrapped up as shiny entertainment. The story touches upon much more than Stu’s emerging acceptance of his sexuality or the risk of discovery in a profoundly unenlightened environment, so that the context of homosexual life during WW II is established not only within the Army but also within America as a whole.
Stu is the runt of the litter in his squad but is mentored by Mitch (Ken Robinson), a handsome, All-American “soldier’s soldier” who has earned the respect of the others. Yet even as their relationship develops in intimate terms, Stu, after being wooed by photographer Artie (Robert W. Kingery), jumps at the chance to avoid combat by transferring to the staff of YANK! Magazine. Artie manages his homosexuality in uniform with a seeming ease that holds no small appeal for Stu. It is when Stu reconnects to Mitch and the other members of the squad that complications drive the plot towards more tragic circumstances.
I found the score problematic in that it alternated between extended lengths of narrative singing and more traditional songs, with the former treading at times into tedium that contributed to a sluggish pace in the first act. The vocal abilities of the ensemble were pretty good over all, and the principals sang in fine style. But it was the songs more firmly rooted in the period sensibility of the 1940’s that worked best. A song list was not provided in the program, nor was one available on the official YANK! website, but a number about how, “…your squad is your squad,” was a highlight, and every time Ms. Hill took the stage for a song, her sparkling performance seemed to put a snap in the ensemble’s delivery. Used as a utility player, she is only called upon to develop one character, but her contribution to the pace, energy, and sense of period was crucial. By the same token, Robert W. Kingery’s obvious talent as a dancer raised the level of every number he joined, and his introduction was a bravura tap number. Dance is always a challenge in local theatres because of insufficient rehearsal time, and many in the cast were clearly still managing their steps with a care that robbed the choreography of the sharp impact it seeks. One could argue that the presence of an experienced pro like Mr. Kingery throws ensemble production numbers out of balance, but I think in this instance YANK! is lucky to have him.
Production values were richly realized, with some understated projection work, costumes by Donna Lawrence-Downs, and a simple yet flavorful, mock proscenium set design by Karl Anderson. Musical Director Gayle King led a five-piece band that was appropriately heavy with horns and woodwinds. You just can’t do the 1940’s without horns and woodwinds.
But the heart of YANK! is the tender but difficult relationship between Stu and Mitch, and Ben Gierhart and Ken Robinson nicely realize the pair with compassion and complexity. I know that this play has been criticized for a muddled second act, but for me, YANK! comes fully into focus in the later scenes, providing the crux of the drama in terms that achieve a nice balance between preachy and pathos.
May 14 – 24, 2015
At The Henry Clay Theatre
604 South Third Street
Louisville, KY 40202
For tickets go to: Pandoraproductions.org
[box_light]Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being one of the hosts of PUBLIC on ARTxFM, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.[/box_light]