NEW GUEST CRITIC THOMAS HOLLOWAY FINDS A NEW MUSICAL
Arriving at the Charing Cross Theatre this weekend, in the wake of London’s Pride weekend, is this transfer from the enterprising new Hope Mill Theatre.Inspired by the musical traditions of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Yank! was written by Joseph and David Zellnik: in this Pride week it tells a tale those veterans could not have dared to: the story of Stu and Mitch, two soldiers who fall in love whilst in the US Army. Dressed in the drag of the old MGM musicals Yank! becomes both a homage to 1940’s Hollywood glamour and a testament to the bravery of the gay American men and women who fought on the front lines during World War II.
It’s a fascinating concept: it feels as though this is a lost musical from the era’s canon, recovered and reinserted into history. This seems to be exactly the Zellnik Brothers aim: they have reclaimed a pivotal moment of gay history which has been lost to the record, by using the very iconography with which the gay identity found itself.
However, the execution seems slightly unfocused. Incorporating an overabundance of themes, David Zellnik’s book never concentrates on the beats it truly wants to explore, playing erratically with plots and motifs, not awarding the themes the complexity they deserve. There is too much extraneous fluff built into it, which combined with some of the show’s anachronistic humour muddies what it has to say about sexuality and gender.
This extends to his characters, which are mostly stereotypical tropes, many of whom who do little to serve the narrative. The two lovers are very much of the masculine protector/feminine protected type seen in a lot of queer media, and despite the World War II setting that feels a little tired. This is particularly a shame, as the play makes it clear that this is a crucial moment of history where the concepts of gender and sexuality are being discovered, so it seems somewhat of a missed opportunity.
This is to not slight the performances, which are all exceptional. Scott Hunter is incredibly affecting as Stu, masterfully guiding his character’s subtle transition from nervous youngster to brave freedom fighter. He is supported wonderfully by Andy Coxon’s Mitch (whose honeyed voice is nothing short of excellent), who excellently conveys his character’s internal struggle with the expectations of masculinity, and Chris Kiely’s Artie, who gives the show a much needed comic flourish.
However, best in show is Sarah-Louise Young, whose smoky vocals and bold character turns makes her a wonderful ode to both the struggle of women throughout the war and the glamorous old Hollywood starlets who occupy queer iconography to this day. All of the company’s tight vocals and choreography are up to any West End performer’s: it’s just that some of the characters get lost in the mix.
But this is definitely worth seeing, and a great insight into American queer culture during the Second World War. The Zellnik brothers produce a score of fantastic tunes, conveying both the vibrant hope and suffocating loss of the era. Victoria Hinton’s set uses the space well, and has a wonderful sliding door element revealing a wide array of characters, musicians or obstacles, meaning you never know what awaits our protagonists next. Particularly fantastic is Aaron J. Dootson’s lighting design, a wonderful spectrum of scenes and moods, all the way from the horror of war to the glamour of the silver screen.
So Yank! is definitely a much-needed, and charming, ode to the courage of these lost heroes – it just gets a little distracted along the way.
box office 08444 930 650 http://www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk to 19 August