Right now, that place is Brooklyn, where the Gallery Players just opened its production of David and Joseph Zellnik’s musical Yank!, a touching and oh-so-tuneful look at a side of World War II we seldom see: the gay side. You might never have wondered how soldiers defending freedom from Japanese and German aggression contended with their attraction for each other so many decades before “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But Yank! makes it a question worth considering, if for no other reason than because the show asking it has so much going for it.
Though Yank! is a new 1940s musical, you needn’t worry about its being a reanimation of a long-embalmed form. This is not a parody or satire, doing for the ‘40s what Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Drowsy Chaperone did for the ‘20s. Instead, it’s a contemporary show using the wisdom of the past to uncover timeless truths about what makes, and has always made, men who they are. Masculinity, or the lack thereof, assumes many forms as David’s book and lyrics track a single squad from their first days of basic training in 1944 to their landing on Iwo Jima a year later.
Stu (Bobby Steggert) is young and as uncertain of himself as he is of his sexuality. Mitch (Maxime de Toledo) is Hollywood-handsome, confident, and too thoroughly closeted to return Stu’s affections. Stu eventually meets Artie (Jeffry Denman), who introduces him to the underground world of armed-forces swinging and persuades Stu to sign on as a photographer for Yank, the widely read magazine by and for soldiers. The allure of easy sex is too much for the pining Stu, and his and Mitch’s paths diverge a number of time over the ensuing year and a half, only to reconnect in circumstances alternately erotic and tragic.
Yet whatever the situation, David and composer Joseph realize the couple’s troubles with a lilting score of supple accomplishment that combines pastiche and the urgency of the heart to often searing effect. The musical centerpiece is “Remembering You,” an aching ballad of great love lost that highlights Stu and Mitch’s star-crossed pairing. The smoldering passion of the dance-by-moonlight “Blue Twilight,” the sad undercurrents of the future-planning “A Couple of Regular Guys” and the clear-eyed “Just True,” and even the agony of hiding in plain sight with a photo of “Betty” (a paean to the gorgeous Ms. Grable) catalog all of Stu and Mitch’s struggles as lovers in a culture that wants them only as fighters.
Yank! has retained much of the warmth and soul that made it such a highlight of the 2005 New York Musical Theatre Festival, and even held on to director Igor Goldin, whose staging bursts with quiet sensitivity, and Denman, just as electric now as he was then. Though the rest of the cast is new, and everyone is excellent, there have been few other major changes - there’s been a bit of trimming and clarifying and not a great deal else (losing that second dream ballet was a wise move).
The show still has a way to go - the second act is considerably looser than the first, with weaker songs that sacrifice plot for entertainment instead of interweaving the two. And the new framing device, of a young boy from today (Steggert again) discovering Stu’s service diary, is a confusing and unnecessary addition to a show that needs no help telling its story.
Perhaps the biggest - and most enlivening - thing to happen to Yank! in the last two years was the casting of Nancy Anderson. This chameleonic charmer, one of the few legitimate triple threats in New York theatre, shines in every show she graces, though she rarely has the opportunity to display the full breadth of her considerable talent. That’s hardly the case here: Playing all the women of World War II, she sizzles and smokes as USO singers, wives, girlfriends, and the top-ranking lesbian in the armed services who knows all too well what Mitch and Stu are risking.
Whether moaning with operatic anguish as a heartbroken heroine in a clip from a movie called The Great Beyond! or belting out her girl-back-home woes as “Saddest Gal What Am,” she is giving perhaps the most elaborate audition ever for Nellie Forbush in South Pacific. Anderson isn’t starring in Lincoln Center’s upcoming revival of that show, but she’s an irreplaceable component in Yank!, which - gay-themed or not - is as close as we’ve come to it in a long time.