Thanks above all to the strength and heartfelt sincerity of the playing in Yank we experience a moving evening flecked with humour and sustained on a secure foundation of velvety period style. This excellent production does full justice to this musical, and one hopes that will be sufficient impetus to trigger the full Broadway production it has still not received.
For us, the show is about the terrors and joys of falling in love for the first time, the fear you’re not strong enough, and the need to be brave in love and in life. Joseph & David Zellnik
Yank comes into town after a very successful British opening at the Hope Mill theatre, Manchester’s suddenly successful new venue. Some of the cast transfers with it, notably Scott Hunter in the lead role and the unique Sarah-Louise Young, who plays all the female roles in a true tour de force. The musical itself is not quite so new, with its break-through Off-Broadway production dating back to 2010 and the debate over ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ within the US military.
The starting point was that fine work of reconstructive history by Allan Berubé, Coming Out under Fire, which gathered together so much of what was thought lost about gay life in World War Two in the American armed services. Many real-life stories are woven into the texture of the story of ‘Charlie Company’ as we follow them from training camp through to service on the Pacific Front and the killing fields of Iwo Jima.
We see events through the eyes of Stu (Scott Hunter), a gauche, initially self-loathing Mid-western teenager, who gradually finds identity and love through the torrid experiences of bullying and military service. Crucially he keeps a diary, which is recovered after his death decades later in San Francisco, and turned out to be his undoing final stages of the war itself.
Like so many musical theatre plots it works as a coming of age story, as a love story and as a statement of collective or community solidarity. We see Stu mature as a man and as a writer, as he moves over from a combat unit to become a contributor to the services magazine, Yank. We witness him admit to the possibility of gay love and then fall for another man in his unit, who is both Stu’s protector and a troubled man himself. We experience him at the centre of a varied group of soldiers, whose camaraderie is touchingly annealed and represented to us in a fine series of song and dance routines.
On a musical level this show is a self-conscious tribute not just to the ‘greatest generation, but also to the ‘Golden Age’ of post-war musicals. The numbers have many echoes of the style of Rogers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser and Lerner and Lowe. In most ways this works very well, and the music and orchestrations always seem appropriate in style and dramatic fit.
This is especially so in the sequence of numbers for female radio sweethearts and starlets, all depicted by Young. However, the sense of accurate period style perhaps also inhibits individual originality to a degree. Only a couple of songs, Polishing Shoes and A Couple of Regular Guys would really stand alone, apart from their dramatic context.
The Charing Cross Theatre has developed an excellent reputation for musicals despite the odd acoustic effect of its tunnel configuration. Director James Baker and designer Victoria Hinton did well to put the band behind slats above and at the back of the stage. This produced an excellent balance from which James Cleeve’s accomplished forces could project both big-band pizzazz and languorous melancholy in equal measure.
There are a lot of scenes and numbers to get through. Fluidity of pacing is crucial here and there were points at which the direction seemed rather thin, though the functional sets provided both suggestive ways of opening things up quickly and moving the action along.
The ensemble scenes with the Squad had some awkward moments of dialogue, particularly as we moved from denigration of Stu to his affectionate integration; but these doubts were soon swept away by the next tap routine or daringly choreographed ensemble – excellent work by Chris Cuming.
Hunter’s performance is the beating heart of this show and it is a remarkable, many-splendoured thing. His journey is sketched out with great sensitivity and communicative skill across the evening. He sings and dances with growing panache and demonstrates his acting chops in the later uncomfortable scenes when his character comes face to face with the most authoritarian side of the US military.
He is matched by Andy Coxon’s portrayal of his lover, Mitch. This is a detailed portrait of a conflicted figure of great sensitivity who is slowly unravelled by the war despite his best efforts to do rights by all his comrades. Coxon is technically very accomplished, totally looks the part of the handsome man who has never had to try hard to win attention or friends, and the yet reveals the fractured and fragmented soul within unsparingly.
We know Sarah-Louise Young as an accomplished cabaret writer and performer, but here she gives us more. She is totally within the persona of the ‘forces radio siren’ and absolutely on top of the style of singing required here. Yet as Louise she also gives a detailed, tough yet brittle portrait of how a gay woman negotiated the shoals of army life. In some ways one wished this role were larger or that other roles for gay characters were made available here.
All the members of the squad give distinctive vignettes of men reacting in different ways to the stress of training and combat. There is also a fine spectrum of reactions to gay life that are true to the period. Lee Dillon-Stuart stood out in projecting a vindictiveness that was rooted in self-hatred, and Chris Kiely provided a foil to Hunter, as gay photographer, Artie, whose carefree approach to love and life provided a lot of the humour in the middle sections of the show.
Thanks above all to the strength and heartfelt sincerity of the playing we experience a moving evening flecked with humour and sustained on a secure foundation of velvety period style. This excellent production does full justice to this musical, and one hopes that will be sufficient impetus to trigger the full Broadway production it has still not received.