By Richard Ades
Wartime romance is complicated. When it’s depicted on the stage, it’s also, often, tuneful.
Think South Pacific. Or The Sound of Music. Or Yank! The Musical.
The last may be less well-known than the other two, but it focuses on a type of romance that’s seldom addressed in mainstream entertainment: the same-sex kind.
With a book and lyrics by David Zellnik and music by Joseph Zellnik, it follows the adventures of Stu, a young man who joins the Army during World War II. Stu tries his best to fit in with the ragtag group of guys he trains with, but he can’t help noticing that he stands out. One clue is that he doesn’t share the others’ lascivious fascination with pinup photos of Betty Grable.
The other soldiers seem to sense Stu’s nonconforming nature and kid him mercilessly—or they would if a nice guy named Mitch didn’t stop them. Stu is grateful, but it turns out his feelings for Mitch go far beyond that. One night, when the squad is finally on its way to the war, he acts on those feelings, setting off on a dangerous sequence of events.
Beyond its gay theme, Yank! The Musical is pretty traditional. Stu and Mitch’s squad is geographically and ethnically diverse, just like squads always are in wartime fiction. The songs are pleasant but unmemorable, sounding much like any number of vintage romantic ballads.
Somehow, though, none of this matters. To the contrary, it seems fitting that a gay love story is treated much like its “straight” predecessors. It underscores the fact that gay Americans were fighting for their country right along with the heterosexuals usually depicted in wartime musicals.
Evolution Theatre’s production tells Stu’s story well, thanks to Jimmy Bohr’s beautiful direction and cast of actors who act and sing with equal skill.
Nick Hardin is conflicted but courageous as Stu; William Macke is kind but even more conflicted as Mitch. Other major players include choreographer Brent Fabian as Artie Goldberg and Jesika Siler Lehner as a bevy of show-biz crooners and assorted other women.
Though the musical tackles the serious issue of discrimination against gay soldiers, it doesn’t always do it in a serious way. Particularly funny is the trio of steno-pool workers (Jeb Bigelow, Doug Joseph and Scott Clay) who express their otherness by taking on the characters of Southern belles from Gone With the Wind. Add the lighthearted songs and dance numbers, and you have a show that’s far more pleasant than you’d expect.
Shane Cinal’s scenic design is simple, leaning heavily on patriotic colors, and is bolstered by Nitz (Curtis) Brown’s dramatic lighting. Jason Guthrie’s costumes are similarly simple but place the action in the proper era.
Led by Michael L. Medvidik, the onstage band plays with spirit, even if it hits the occasional sour note. The vocal harmonizing also has its pitchy moments, though the singers do fine when they’re on their own.
A final caveat is that the musical goes on longer that it really needs to, thanks to extraneous numbers like the silly Your Squad Is Your Squad. But the story is so overdue, and it’s told in such a good-natured manner, that you probably won’t mind at all.
Evolution Theatre Company will present Yank! The Musical through June 6 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors. 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.