A soldier’s journal is the thread that weaves together the characters and the story in Yank! A WWII Love Story over 75 years. Today, a young man (Matthew Huston) finds an old diary in a junk shop and he’s fascinated by the story told through the pages.
“It’s the wartime journal of one Private Stewart, who as it happened, spent World War 2 working for a magazine: ‘Yank: the magazine by the servicemen, for the servicemen.’ On the opening page of the journal, in very neat handwriting it says: “No matter what I do, I keep remembering you.” …Cryptic right? And kinda corny, so I looked it up, and it’s from a song. I bought it on iTunes.”
In 1943, a young man named Stu (Huston) is drafted and ready to join the Army. His mother gives him a journal so he can record his experiences.
David Zak directs the Chicago premiere of Yank!, a 2005 musical with book and lyrics by David Zellnik and music by Joseph Zellnik, at the Pride Arts Center. The excellent choreography is by Jenna Schoppe.
The Yank! story—its tragic history balanced by its lighthearted songs and dances—reminds us of the situation in which the gay underground operated during wartime. Stu and Charlie company go through basic training; 10 soldiers perform the drills led by Sarge (Marc Prince) on the small Pride/Broadway stage. Stu, a naive young man, is astonished when he meets the “ladies” in the steno pool (Prince, Parker Guidry and Raymond Goodall). And he falls immediately in love with the handsome Mitch (William Dwyer), who teaches Stu how to shine his shoes (to the song “Polishing Shoes”) and carries on his own personal fight with his gayness.
The story proceeds through training, transfer to the west coast and eventually, to the war front. Stu is befriended by Artie (John Marshall Jr.), a photographer who works for Yank, the WWII weekly Army magazine. Artie recruits Stu to write for Yank. (The familiar Stars and Stripes is a newspaper published since 1861 for the U.S. armed forces.) Artie also entices Stu out of his scared midwestern shell and teaches him to dance; the two perform a delightful tap dance in act one.
Stu’s journal writing marks the days and eventually provides unfortunate evidence about his activities.
During World War II, homosexuals were barred from service and were supposedly screened out during induction. Because the need to fill quotas was great, the examinations were often perfunctory. At one stage in Yank!, a soldier speculates that certainly things will change for them by 1948 or 1950. Of course, “sodomy” or homosexual activity was a crime in most states until the 1960s. Illinois was the first state to repeal its sodomy law in 1962. And the armed services still struggle with LGBTQ rights, as we’ve seen all too often.
Zak’s strong direction weaves all the elements together. Roger Wykes’ scenic design makes good use of the small performance space, adding a narrow second-level stage. Lighting design is by Cassandra Bierman and costumes by Uriel Gomez. Musical director Robert Ollis (on piano) leads the musicians on a slightly raised stage to the right. The band, made up of percussion, keys and horns, plays Zellnik’s 1940s-style songs—swing, big band and boogie-woogie—with style and energy.
The performer who gets credit for the most backstage permutations is Molly LeCaptain, who plays every female role from Stu’s mother to the general’s aide to an array of radio and lounge singers–her powerful voice and vocal styles adapt to every genre. She surely must be setting a record for the most costume and wig changes in a single show.
Yank! A WWII Love Story runs almost 2.5 hours including an intermission. It continues at Pride Films & Plays Broadway stage, 4139 N. Broadway, through February 18. Tickets are $30-40 for performances Thursday-Sunday, with Wednesday shows on February 7 and 14.