Yank is a musical in the style of an MGM spectacular, full of big band, torch songs and swing. Yank is a love story, taut with tension and danger, threats from without and threats from within. Yank is a historical drama, taking us back to 1943, uncovering the hidden stories of men who loved men and women who loved women. Yank is, above all else, a triumph.
In present day America, a young man finds a discarded journal in a junk store. He becomes consumed with the story it contains, the story of two men who were lovers in the American Army during World War II…cue fade to the past. Stu is a new conscript, arriving for basic training to join the 89th squadron. He’s full of anxiety, body consciousness and a growing awareness that the Hollywood pin-ups that the other guys fixate on do nothing for him. The bullying from his fellow recruits is only suspended when Mitch, their informal leader, takes Stu under his wing. They awaken something in each other; horseplay and displaced sexual longings rapidly develop under the urgency of war into a daring kiss.
Facing up to the consequences of that kiss for them socially, legally and emotionally is the body of the rest of the piece and it gives rich and complex material. This is perfectly handled by writer David Zellnik. As the grip of McCarthyism begins to squeeze gays and lesbians out of the military and all public office, the stakes could not be higher. What is so accomplished about Zellnik’s story-telling is that the risks Stu and Mitch face work both as clear and present dangers for them specifically as two men in love at this time, and also as metaphors for the dangers of loving anyone, for admitting for what you feel, being vulnerable and risking rejection.
The music by Joseph Zellnik is a wonderful blend, fusing the dominant genres of the 1940s with a modern musical sensibility perfectly. The lyrics deal with complex notions of personal identity that are neatly summarised and beautifully expressed. The tumultuous stages of Mitch and Stu’s love affair are punctuated by some brilliantly judged comedy. The men who form the ‘girls’ of the typing pool are a riot (especially Luke Bayer’s India) referencing the whole of homosexual experience through Gone With The Wind similes. A parody of the State sponsored supposedly morale boosting war movie is equally funny. James Baker’s direction gets every beat and gear change just right.
Sarah-Louise Young is remarkable, taking on every female role in the piece. All the performances are strong, and the central couple are electric. Barnaby Hughes creates a confident alpha male in Mitch, whose journey into love with another man has all the pathos, pain and conflict of a character straight out of a Tennessee Williams play. Scott Hunter completely owns the challenging transformation of Stu from bullied nerd to brave soldier about to take on even bigger challenges after the war. He conveys every depth of emotion without ever becoming saccharine or sentimental. He is brilliant.
Yank is a rare and wonderful thing. It a musical that delivers on good comedy, great songs and fabulous choreography, but it is so much more. It has a complexity, nuance, richness and historical importance that is rare to find in this genre. Yank is sensational.
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Words by Stephen M Hornby