I’ll admit at the outset that my history with the show may not be yours. I first encountered this thoughtful and tuneful tribute to 1940s Broadway know-how at the 2005 New York Musical Theatre Festival, and was taken (slightly) less with it as a piece of writing than I was by its promise. Back then, it spun the rarely told story of gay servicemen in World War II with as much patriotic fervor as it did respect for the Golden Age that Rodgers and Hammerstein ushered in. The bumpiness, and there was a fair amount, could be easily forgiven: “They’re still working on it.”
A 2007 mounting at the Gallery Players in Brooklyn, with the same director (Igor Goldin) and much of the same cast as at the York, showed that the Zellniks had indeed been working. They’d addressed some of the earlier deficiencies, but added a few new ones. If the overall change in tone and vision was inconclusive, that version’s failures, too, were easy to excuse: “They’ve got plenty of time to get where they want to go.”
An Off-Broadway production means the show has officially arrived, and Yank! has done so in its most polished but least effective incarnation yet, cursed by a chunky unevenness that is highly reminiscent of so many shows that have been workshopped to death. Were it not for the sublime Nancy Anderson, one of the theatre’s most valuable living treasures, playing the supporting role(s) of about a dozen women with the passionate determination most actresses save for Gypsy’s Madam Rose, I’d be hard pressed to find anything to unequivocally recommend.
That’s because, over the course of its gestation, the show has lost much of the universality that once energized it. Some things have remained the same since the beginning: Stu, an insecure 18-year-old who’s drafted into the army, falls in love with this squadmate Mitch and despite trying to quell his feelings (and quench his desires) traveling the world with the largely gay staff of recruits behind the military magazine Yank!, and ends up causing a lot of trouble for everyone in the decades before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” became (and, as of just recently, unbecame) the law of the land.
But whereas the show once examined Stu’s trials through a much broader lens that both complimented America and criticized its attitudes toward homosexuality, it’s now content with being a tract. A young San Francisco man in the present finds the salacious diary Stu kept about his crusades, conquests, and collapses, and not only uses it to derive strength for living in a still-intolerant world, but even to imagine himself as Mitch - which provides the engine for the action.
Aside from its slipshod handling - Stu (played here by Bobby Steggert) narrates even when separated from the diary; a song inspiring the future Stu (also Steggert) continues to sing to him after he removes the headphones he’s using to listen to it, and so on - this saps the strength and conviction from a story that need them to thrive. The frame and the narration, especially structured so shallowly (“January 21st. The bottom drops out of my life.”), distance us from characters we can only understand and sympathize with from close up. Stu’s spiritual gay-pride descendent limits us to one point of view and, worse, one level of preachiness, which of course is 11; his final monologue makes it clear we’re not supposed to feel any other way about the story we’ve witnessed.
This is an egregious misstep not just because the original 2005 framing device - an ancient Stu in an old-age home unwittingly yielding up his cherished secrets - better supported the overall theme, but because precious few 1940s musicals were constructed this way. And that’s the style the Zellniks are so completely adopting.
Most major 1940s shows, however, told their stories straight-on, with the writers trusting themselves and their audiences to glean deeper meanings without needing everything spelled out. The better 1940s shows sounded like more than a musical whirlwind of the era, capturing their composers’ unique voices at least as much (and usually more) than the prevailing cultural soundtrack. And the best 1940s shows did not throw in a dream ballet “just because,” as the Zellniks have: They knew that dance should propel the story, not stop it. (It’s nicely performed here by Joseph Medeiros and Denis Lambert, but the new just-under-three-minute pas de deux version is neither more relevant nor more revealing than when the entire cast danced it for upwards of 10 minutes.)
If Yank! is now more overthought and overwrought than is ideal, it’s nonetheless attracted decent talents on both sides of the footlights. Goldin has staged things with well-greased efficiency; and Tricia Barsamian’s costumes and Ashley Ryan’s wigs and hair adroitly summon up the period. Ray Klausen’s set is on the anemic side (featureless sliding panels and rickety bunk beds are the prime features), but it makes good use of the limited stage space.
Steggert is back in top form after zombifying Ragtime’s Younger Brother, and effortlessly captures the innocence, curiosity, and libidinous hubris that make Stu fascinating enough to not require an alter ego. Hernandez is a smokily threatening but tender Mitch, evoking such pure masculinity that his literal and figurative embracings of Stu comes as exactly the shocks they must. Denman has become a bit slick as Artie, but dances deftly and conveys the cunning sense of sunny menace needed to make Artie so terrifying. Todd Faulkner and Tally Sessions stand out as the more interesting of the military folk.
She’s a marvel when singing, of course, and could not create more distinctive personalities than the dedicated left-behind USO girl (“Saddest Gal What Am”), the torch temptress (“Blue Twilight”), General MacArthur’s butch second-in-command (“Credit to the Uniform”), or even nationalistic melodrama (“The Bright Beyond,” the Act II movie-themed opener). But the ghostly pain behind her eyes at even the happiest times signals that all her characters belong in a single complex, cruel world on the verge of self-destruction.
Anderson does what the creators and other cast members can't: She brings the war directly into the theater, making as large as possible a work that otherwise longs to shrink into nothingness. Anderson’s red-giant star turn is as charismatic, individual, and irreplaceable as you can find today. The rest of the current Yank!, despite its potential-packed history and undeniable good intentions, is little more than just another show suggesting its battle has already been lost.