Playwright: David Zellnik (book/lyrics),
Joseph Zellnik (music). At: Pride Films & Plays, 4139 N. Broadway. Tickets: PrideFilmsAndPlays.com; $30-$40. Runs through: Feb. 18
Veteran director David Zak's energetic production of Yank! A World War II Love Story offers a talented ensemble cast, swift action and upbeat music played by an exemplary six-piece orchestra under gifted musical director Robert Ollis. But, I may be the only Chicagoan who saw the original Off-Broadway Yank! at the York Theatre in 2010 ( and wrote about it in the Windy City Times ), and I think the revisions made since then have fundamentally changed the show without improving it.
Taking place in 1943-1945, Yank! focuses on Stu ( Matthew Huston ), a newly inducted and naive 18 year-old GI. Before completing basic training, Stu realizes he is gay ( although the word isn't used ) and falls in love with Mitch ( strapping, rich-voiced William Dwyer ), an affable, sexually confused inductee nick-named "Hollywood" for his good looks. By coincidence, Stu meets the experienced Artie ( John Marshall, Jr. ), who sexually initiates Stu and springs him from his combat platoon ( and Mitch ) to a cushier job as a reporter for Yank, the actual War Department magazine published by/for enlisted men. As the story progresses, Stu and Mitch cross paths again in a romantic interlude in which they envision post-War life together, and then in a final bittersweet farewell.
The 2010 original had lots of rollicking comedy and, despite its bittersweet ending, an appreciative nod to the LGBT underground in WWII. Yes, homophobia was institutionalized in the military, but there were ways to game the system. Those who knew real gay WWII vets ( such as the late George Buse ) were well aware of the risks they had taken but also of the strengths of the hidden culture.
I thought that Yank! would move quickly from off-Broadway success to a big commercial future. Instead, it entered limbo with several near-productions and each new producer and/or director dictating revisions. The Yank! at Pride Films and Plays has jettisoned almost all comedy in favor of a dark tale in which no gay man goes unpunished and the military homophobia is heavy-handed. Yank! has been turned into a history lesson for straight people"Hey, we bet you never knew this stuff."instead of the LGBT celebration it was originally.
But Yank! is what it is, not what it was, so reread my first paragraph. The performers are strong, with Marshall and Huston cutting loose in an unexpected tap number ( "Click" ) choreographed by Jenna Schoppe, and lone female Molly LeCaptain singing up a storm with several fine period-style numbers. Indeed, most of the score carefully channels 1940s romantic ballads and big band sounds with tight harmony vocals. One nit: Costume designer Uriel Gomez leaves Mitch ( and another character ) in a ratty, stained A-shirt when he needs to clean up. Hey, give romance a chance!