In college, I researched the history of BDSM in the United States, a history that begins during World War II as a subset of gay male history. Soldiers, removed from social constraints and the expectations of society and family, were free (to a certain extent) to explore their sexuality. This freedom traveled back to the U.S. in the form of early gay and leather bars. So when I read the synopsis for Yank!, a self-described “World War II love story” between two men, I was eager to delve further into the history of gay men in the military.
Yank! is an easy story to love, especially with the rock star cast that Pride Films and Plays has put together. The shy, sensitive Stu chronicles his time in the U.S. army in a pocket-sized journal, including his work as a writer for the eponymous Yank!, a magazine by and for servicemen; his discovery of a gay subculture within the military; and, most centrally, the unfolding of his complicated relationship with Mitch, the handsome, confident soldier he befriends in basic training. Matthew Huston is utterly endearing as Stu and demonstrates impressive emotional range as his character experiences extremes of joy, sorrow, and everything in between.
I didn’t really fall in love with the show, though, until the introduction of Artie, who becomes Stu’s mentor of sorts in navigating gay culture. An elaborate and incredibly impressive tap duet between Artie and Stu is what really sold me on these characters and this world. Indeed, choreographer Jenna Schoppe has filled the show with high-energy, creative movement that drives the story forward and makes it totally engaging to watch. Equally eye-catching was the floor treatment, designed by Roger Wykes, which shows the Yank! magazine logo repeatedly in bold letters and black-and-red coloring.
The show drags a bit in places—some of the musical numbers could be trimmed down—and the pseudo-40s-style radio music does start to sound the same after a while, but lyrics by David Zellnik are clever and memorable. I appreciated as well that while the ending of the show isn’t exactly a happy one, it also doesn’t take the most obvious and tragic route available.
Mitch is only ever categorized as someone who can “pass”; his interest in pin-up girls and his fiancée Becky, as well as Stu, read to me as bisexuality, rather than the “closet case” that Artie accuses Mitch of being. As someone who’s too often grasping at straws trying to find representation of my sexual orientation in any form of media, I would have appreciated some acknowledgement that attraction to men and attraction to women can exist in the same person.
There is a bit of representation for queer women, however, in spite of there being virtually no female characters in the show, which was an unexpected but highly pleasant surprise. This representation comes in the form of Louise, a quietly out lesbian who works as secretary to the general. Her few scenes are some of the most enjoyable in the show, particularly as performed by Molly LeCaptain, a charming performer with a powerful set of pipes who, in addition to Louise, plays a number of radio singers. Why she had to have quite so many wig changes I’m not sure, but LeCaptain herself is a delight.
Yank! is a musical that never quite made it to Broadway, but we’re certainly lucky that it’s come to Chicago. This historic love story is perfect for contemporary audiences.
Bias warning: I directed Matthew Huston in a fundraiser production for a children’s theatre, and I briefly worked with Brian Kulaga at that same company.
Location: The Broadway, Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway
Dates: January 13 – February 18, 2018
Times: Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 3:30 pm, Wednesdays February 7 and 14 at 7:30 pm.
Tickets: Tickets are $40 for reserved seats, $30 general admission. There are discounts for students and seniors. Tickets are available now at the Pride Films and Plays website.
All photos by Paul Goyette.