Charing Cross Theatre, London – until 19th August
Guest reviewer: Rosalind Freeborn
Just a few days ago London hosted Pride, a celebration of sexual diversity, with a friendly march through the centre of the city, flying the rainbow flag for tolerance and understanding. The purpose of the march was to consolidate a belief that love, in whatever human form it takes, should be allowed to flourish.
For gay men and women during World War II there was no such tolerance or understanding. Yank!, a musical by Joseph Zellnik with books and lyrics by David Zellnik, follows the fortunes of a young (nearly 19) squaddie, drafted into the American army in the early 1940s. The fictional story of Stu, played by a very impressive Scott Hunter, is told through diary entries. Keeping a journal while a member of the military during the war was against the law, but Stu records his life, the men in his platoon, his love for fellow soldier, Mitch, with touching poignancy.
Although there is a chronological narrative, the scenes are played out like revue sketches. Stu’s platoon comprises a hotchpotch of characters from different backgrounds – Polish, Italian, Jewish, mid-west, city and country. All the men are frustrated to be away from their girls, their families and their old lives. But they are loyal to ‘Uncle Sam’ and fulfill their duty. Against this background, Stu and Mitch discover love; the love is at first denied, they are separated, they get together, they plan a future and then realize that the freedom they crave is not something that will ever be allowed by society back home.
In terms of plot, that’s about it. We follow the platoon from training to destinations in the Pacific with the promise of fighting the Japanese but we don’t see a lot of action until the second act. What we do see is some very entertaining routines. When Stu meets the louche Artie, editor of the magazine called Yank!, which all the soldiers read, he is initiated into the gay world and gets a job as a reporter. There’s a particularly good tap routine by Stu and Artie, played by Chris Kiely with cool aplomb, which expands into a thumpingly great company number.
There’s a very amusing scene where Stu meets a team of administrative soldiers who refer to each other as Scarlett, Melanie and India (characters from Gone with the Wind) and are heedless that their fey manners might seem out-of-place in the army.
Many of the scenes are nicely linked by performances from Sarah-Louise Young, the only woman in the production. With a remarkable and versatile voice, she plays a variety of female roles from radio singer to film star and girl next door. She also plays a feisty lesbian soldier who is sympathetic to Stu’s plight. When Stu is arrested for being ‘degenerate’, she retrieves his journal, gives it back to him, and exhorts him to get his story published and help change perception of gay love.
The show has been tightly directed by James Baker with excellent choreography by Chris Cuming ably supported by a seven-piece band led by James Cleeve. It’s an entertaining and lively night out.