An inspiring musical about the American armed forces in 2005? Perish the thought! Yet that, after a fashion, is what David Zellnik and Joseph Zellnik give us with Yank!, a winning and sobering new musical at the New York Musical Theatre Festival that reminds us it's possible to both wave the flag and critically examine what it stands for.
The issue they tackle, homosexuality in the World War II military, won't immediately resonate with much familiarity: How often is this subject broached? The idea has an innately sharp edge, which comes through in the show, but is so tempered by good humor and traditional musical-theatre know-how that it's not easily detected at first glance.
It is, however, immediately apparent that the Zellniks have attempted to fashion their own show around 1944-1945 theatrics, with such period fixtures as scenes-in-one and irreverent tap dances blithely arising from shrugged-off dialogue. But because the Zellniks treat it all so seriously, these techniques feel freshly conceived rather than imitative, and give the show an authenticity it could easily lack.
The story, of course, wouldn't have graced major stages of the era, though it's not considerably less innocent than Boy Meets Girl. The romance centers on the just-drafted Stu (Doug Kreeger), who's still confused about his sexuality but becomes infatuated with his handsome squadmate Mitch (Ivan Hernandez). Though Mitch displays some interest, his closeted nature - and his girlfriend back home - prevent him from reciprocating, which sends Stu spiraling deeper into uncertainty.
He's rescued by Artie (a suave Jeffry Denman), who helps Stu land a job with him at the for-soldiers-by-soldiers Army newspaper Yank. Their work takes them all over the world, but keeps them from the front lines until fate lands them back with Stu's old squad and the now more willing Mitch. But it's not long before Artie, Stu, and Mitch get tripped up by the secrets, deceptions, and outright lies they use to maintain appearances of "normal" Army lives.
David's book navigates the story's twists with surprising ease, finding more ways to work in lighthearted comedy than you might expect. Much of this comes from the zesty and chameleonic Julie Foldesi, who plays all the female roles, including mothers, girlfriends, and a high-ranking, sympathetic lesbian who works with General MacArthur. But Yank! moves as effortlessly between the jokes and the earnestness as the best traditional musical comedy does, and none of the transitions ever seem forced.
The score, for which Joseph composed the music to David's lyrics, is slightly more problematic. With Rob Berman's ideal orchestrations and energetic musical direction, it bounces and swings with all the verve of a spirited USO show. But only the slower, more contemplative numbers affect both the heart and the ear: A wistful ballad, "Rememb'ring You," proves a beautiful way to open and close the show; "A Couple of Regular Guys" is a moving, faux-optimistic admission of dreams that never be; and "Just True," a quietly imploring demand to live by one's own rules instead of those by others, is heartbreaking without trying to be.
Too many other numbers register as little more than applause-milking time-wasters: "Your Squad Is Your Squad" is a dual-edged salute to unit camaraderie, "Credit To The Uniform" is an uneven production number celebrating gay life in the categorically straight military, and "Howd'ja Like A Little More of Me?" is South Pacific's "Honey Bun" without the memorable writing or sense of carefree fun.
The exception is "Click," a terrific tap number for Denman and Kreeger, that charts Artie and Stu's relationship, burgeoning Yank careers, and illicit homosexual activity. That it so easily morphs from a song about relationships into a song about photography only underscores that when the Zellniks are inspired, they do superb work; the show's other uptempos would be well served by similar daring.
The choreography is by Chase Brock, whose ambition at choreographing more numbers than in most of today's Broadway musicals is met by his well-rounded inventiveness. From calisthenics steps for early-on training to more run-of-the-mill dances for other numbers, Chase knows when to be showy and when to pull back; this is best demonstrated in his plot-heavy and sublimely serious ballet (think of it as "Stu Makes Up His Mind"), a lengthy but engrossing second-act dramatic centerpiece. (Another dream dance in the first act, sung to the lamenting strains of the smoky "Blue Twilight," doesn't pack the same punch.)
Igor Goldin's direction keeps the show moving with cinematic fluidity, with scenic consultant Ray Klausen's sliding panels allowing lightning-quick set changes; Wade Laboissonniere's numerous costumes perfectly evoke period styles. So do most of the performers, though except for Foldesi and Denman, they're functional rather than inspired.
This is unfortunately most true of Kreeger, whose youthfully enthusiastic charisma made him magnetic in this spring's Thrill Me, but isn't right for every show. As the romantic lead in a '40s musical - even one written in 2005 - he's not entirely adequate in terms of either acting or singing (he's the hardest member of the unmiked cast to hear). Equally anachronistic are the coarse language and overt sexual references that more characterize modern interpretations of old shows than the old shows themselves.
But those are small prices to pay for a show this provocative and patriotic, which pays tribute to men in uniform who would otherwise be washed away by the tides of history. If real-life stories of the brave soldiers of World War II who had to hide their sexual orientations to defend the United States are only now emerging, Yank!'s other faults may be forgiven in recognition of its attempt to enlighten us about past stories that deserve to be told and current issues that still must be addressed.
New York Musical Theatre Festival