Sound Advice Reviews
Coming Out in Musicals
If I were a commanding officer of the troops of musical theatre fans, I would order you all to attention for a forward march to any place where you can buy a copy of the superb cast album of Yank!, the tale of gays in the military (and thus necessarily in the shadows) during World War II. This official commercial release was preceded by two demos albums for industry purposes, one from the New York Musical Theatre Festival production and a 2008 album that has mostly the same cast and songs as the current release. The musical began in 2005 as a theatre festival entry in New York, had later readings, and was produced at the York Theatre in 2010. The same cast principals appear on this recording, still sounding as fresh and bright as the clear tones of a reveille trumpet. A couple of supporting cast members weren't available at the time of the recording, but the album represents the version presented at the York, with the score as it was then, after some tweaks and tinkering. The core of the score and its characters and tone are much the same. Heartrending, humorous, or rousingit's a real prize.
Brothers Joseph (music/ dance and vocal arrangements) and David (lyrics/book) Zellnik created the piece and it's extremely well served by its committed and captivating rendition here. As touching, sweet, and striking as ever is its leading man, Bobby Steggert, a wistful and wary young soldier masking his gay feelings and later increasingly emboldened and matured. (Love has a way of doing that in both musicals sampled this week.) His attractive, emotionally direct singing as soldier Stu and impactful narration bookending the show are irresistibly charming and intriguing. While seen in musicals like Ragtime's revival and the recent Giant rocking family boats as a stubborn or sullen contrarian, he's all tender-heart and soul here. The crew of various ethnic and personality types who are his fellow soldiers make for a distinct rather than generic bunch of soldiers slogging through the war. (Vocal variety helps a lot, too.) Ivan Hernandez as Stu's love interest holds focus and sympathies. And Jeffry Denman shines with a wink and panache as the tap-dancing savvy fella who knows the ropes and, begging vulgarity, the gropes of a gay guy getting by without resorting to a life of celibacy. Nancy Anderson plays all the women's parts, including a lesbian military right hand to a general who defies attempted outing/ousting of fellow gays. Sparkling in her skillfully crafted and skillfully chirped pastiches of big band ballads, Anderson fully embodies the genre of various dreamy and peppy spirit-boosters. What a peach!
Jonathan Tunick's classy and spot on orchestrations bring out period flavor and fill out the emotional outlines and some unspoken yearnings. It's a bounty. The title song is undeniably catchy, extolling the praises of Yank Magazine for "just regular types/ Airing their gripes." Songs here often do double duty, being nostalgic but making points. The morale booster company number "Your Squad Is Your Squad" (with members "squeezed in like peas in a pod") serves not just as a delightfully dopey ode to stick-togetherness but also as a plot-crucial distraction and defusing. Its one-upsmanship promises of true-blue palsmanship suggests Cole Porter's loopy loyalty oath of "Friendship." And that's a compliment. A rowdy, hormone-raging paean to the men's picks of pin-up girls, "Betty" (as in movie stars Grable or Hutton), raises suspicions about Stu and pressures the guy to play along, even though we know he'd prefer Gable to Grable. A wish for an idyllic life free of prejudices and recrimination come to flower in picturing Stu and partner as the idealized pair, "A Couple of Regular Guys." This, like the title song and "Rememb'ring You," bring an evocative flood of misty, bittersweet memories-to-be; they are reprised, but don't wear out their welcome.
If all's unfair in love and war, either of which can be hell, the multiple battles here give us someone and something to root for. Yank! delivers a message without getting preachy or pedantic, just poignant. It is a personalized yet universalized story, never forget the duties to entertain and enlighten and engross.
Bold and gripping, unblinking for long stretches, Fun Home jumps around in timethe earliest events begin in the late 1960s and we're brought into the current century. On edge or on guard, the characters have their share of struggle and strife. Tension is relieved by bursts of humor or joy. This happens brashly yet disarmingly when we see those children bopping along as they sing their own quite irreverent would-be extended commercial jingle for the family business's embalming services and "body prep that can't be beat" sung to a funky beat, cavorting cavalierly about caskets "guaranteed to blow your mind." In Fun Home, based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel's autobiographical graphic novel, three actresses play Alison at different stages of life: child (Sydney Lucas), college student (Alexandra Socha) and woman approaching middle age (Beth Malone). We learn early on that several momentous things happened shortly after she began college, including: she realized she was a lesbian, fell in love, came out to her parents, and learned her father was a closeted homosexual himself. Bit by bit, joltingly, in flashbacks, we get flashes of insight and backstory, repression backing up against yearning, turning pain and confusion into revelatory enlightenments. Numerous sections of dialogue, unusually lengthy for a cast album, do some of the work.
It's rarely home sweet home at the Fun[eral] Home, with bottled-up emotion alternating with explosions of rage and frustration. A capable, convincing cast portrays characters beset by personal challenges, discoveries and crossroads. Like people in a J.D. Salinger story, conflicted and wounded souls stumble, their need and desire to connect falling victim to their walls of inhibitions and inarticulate interactions. Protagonist Alison is saved by sheer will, a sense of irony, and the force of first sexual and romantic love. As she happily obsesses in its sensory banquet, the college student is "Changing My Major""to sex with Joan/ With a minor in kissing Joan." The song is imbued with the flush excitement of discovery and ardent worship, and disarmingly delivered by Alexandra Socha in one of the highlights of this piece by Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music), the latter known for her potent portrayals in music for determined female characters (Caroline, or Change; Violet and the thoroughly full-throttle Thoroughly Modern Millie's added material).
Like the metaphorical traits of our current month of March, Michael Cerveris manages to be both roaring lion and meek lamb as the burdened father, Bruce. Sympathetic despite outbursts revealing his short fuse and underlying anguish, he makes us wonder about and care for this controlling, coiled, and puzzling man. Cerveris is an accomplished actor, who has not shied away from full-steam-ahead portrayals of intense and power-seeking men, from revivals of Sondheim pieces to the Juan Perón in Evita. The vulnerability and uncertainty lurking beneath the steely exterior is a specialty in full bloom here. I do wish the skillful and magnetic Judy Kuhn had more to do as the long-suffering wife of a man more attracted to other men, leaving her in wounded anguish (reminiscent of the similar predicament when she was cast as the wife in Dream True), before she gets to unleash her sorrow in "Days and Days," but her mesmerizingly and measured performance gets a lot of loss into one song, lamenting how, in a regimented life, "no one clocks the day you disappear." And while each is perhaps a bit too distinctly different to coalesce as stages of the same person's life, the three Alisons all have standout numbers that impress as we hopscotch through her life.
While somewhat of an unconventional musical, the often surprising and uncompromising piece packs a punch. The score and cast are supported deftly by a seven-piece orchestra, its colors shaded by orchestrator John Clancy and led by keyboardist Chris Fenwick. Moods shade memories, softening them subtly or thrusting them into high relief. A booklet gives us all the lyrics and included dialogue, along with photos, essays and a synopsis.
Despite some grimness and glumness, Fun Home grabs our attention. It reflects the changing times from one generation to the next in acceptance of gays and lesbians by themselves and society. A perceived enlightened future in a new century and the craft shown here are not just the light at the end of a long tunnel, but glimmers illuminating it mile by mile.