50 years ago, in 1967, homosexuality was partially decriminalised in England. In 2000 it became legal to be gay and a member of the UK armed forces. In the USA, the ban on gay folk serving wasn’t fully lifted until 2011. Why do I tell you this, you may ask. Well, the reason is that during WWII it was illegal to be gay in the armed forces and, despite the desperate need for men and women to serve, LGB personnel were persecuted by the military police for being who they were. Yet, when general conscription has been announced and the military machine is desperate for manpower, it’s inconceivable that the odd gayer didn’t slip past and serve their country. Their stories were never told until now as Joseph and David Zellnik’s musical Yank! opens at the Charing Cross Theatre.
It’s 1942 and the USA has finally noticed that Europe is at war. A young man called Stu (Scott Hunter) has been called up. As he leaves, his mother (Sarah-Louise Young) presents him with a journal to record his time in the service. Stu goes off to basic training and joins his squad – ‘Charlie’ Company. As with all such groups of conscripts, the squad is made up of various types from all over the USA and very quickly, names are dispensed with and nicknames become the norm. There is redneck ‘Tennessee” (Lee Dillon-Stuart), Czechowski (Kris Marc-Joseph) from Poland, the ‘Professor’ (Benjamin Cupit), Sicilian-born, Rotelli (Bradley Judge), Seattle-born Cohen (Tom Pepper) and ‘Hollywood’ Mitch Adams (Andy Coxon). As ‘C’ company’s long-suffering training Sergeant (Waylon Jacobs) discovers quite quickly, Stu is pretty useless as a soldier. He drops his rifle and is doing badly during basic training, much to the annoyance of the rest of the squad except Mitch, who helps him. Ah yes, that brings me to another point, Stu is gay and has fallen in love with Mitch – both wrong on so many levels – except that it seems Mitch feels the same way. After basic training, Stu meets up with Artie (Chris Kiely) a photographer on army magazine ‘Yank’. The two of them hit it off immediately, particularly as Artie is, like Stu, ‘light in the loafers’. He is looking for a writer to join him getting stories for the magazine, and so the two of them form a partnership, traveling the war writing positive pieces for the consumption of other ‘real’ soldiers, leaving ‘C’ Company and Mitch behind.
So, here we go then. Let’s talk about the issues with Yank!. Well, for a pedant like me, the uniforms were slightly wrong at times. And that’s it. My one criticism because Yank! was absolutely awesome from start to finish. I’m not sure exactly where to start with praising the show, to be honest. Let’s start with the book. David Zellnik has obviously done a lot of research about the consequences of being a gay man in the US armed forces during the war, and that really comes across with the utterly compelling story of Stu and Mitch. Yank! could easily have been left as a, pardon the pun ‘straight’ play but making it into a musical is a stroke of genius. David and Joseph have made a fabulously authentic sounding 1940s musical with some really memorable songs – such as ‘Click’ and ‘Light on Your Feet’ that evoke the era perfectly.
So, we have a great book and music, what’s next? Well you need a fabulous cast and Yank! really does have a superb one. Mention has to go to Sarah-Louise Young who plays virtually all the women in the show. Everyone from a closeted lesbian soldier, to a series of sweethearts saying goodbye to their man, to radio performers and even a melodramatic film soprano. Sarah-Louise does some fast costume and personality changes and gives every character she performs a life of their own. The rest of the talented cast play multiple roles and dance a wide variety of styles brilliantly and really create a solid and impressive ensemble behind our two leads. Andy Coxon is lovely as the confused, tormented Mitch. His good looks and affable style make him an instant friend of everyone onstage and in the audience and even at his most negative, he makes Mitch human so that it’s easy to understand what motivates Mitch. The chemistry with Scott Hunter’s Stu is palpable and the two of them make a lovely couple. Finally, Scott Hunter is an absolute dream as Stu. He is vulnerable and instantly loveable as the young man trying to come to terms with his homosexuality in the worst place possible. Scott looks and sounds great in the musical numbers but also is an intense serious actor – as we see during the scenes in Act II – who managed to get a strong emotional reaction out of many of us in the audience as we went through Stu’s journey with him.
James Baker’s direction makes fantastic use of the Charing Cross stage which, while not being the biggest in the world never seemed crowded even with the entire twelve-strong cast on it performing Chris Cumming’s choreography. Victoria Hinton’s set is quite minuscule – a few scenery flats and some packing crates – but brilliantly conveys every place required for the story, especially when combined with Aaron J Dootson’s lighting and Chris Bogg’s atmospheric sound design. Finally a mention for Musical Director James Cleeve and the seven-piece band that has the perfect 1940s sound to accompany the songs and provides nice incidental music.
Yank! is a pretty perfect musical as it stands. The story is compelling, the music never puts a foot wrong – guess what I’m listening to on Spotify as I write this – and the production is just amazing on all levels. The show varies from extreme highs to horrific lows but everything fits together perfectly and, at the end, there was a real poignancy in the glimmer of hopeful light that the story ended with. It was quite poignant that I saw the show a couple of days after Pride when so many LGBT+ people were able to celebrate the freedom to be themselves in a way that Stu and Mitch were never able to. Like so many others I was on my feet at the end cheering and wiping away a tear knowing that I had just experienced something really special.
Review by Terry Eastham
Based on the Off-Broadway hit production, and transferring to London following a highly acclaimed run at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester earlier this year, YANK! is a poignant love story based on the true, hidden history of gay soldiers during World War Two.
In 1943, young Mid-Westerner Stu is called up to serve in the forces and becomes a reporter for Yank Magazine, the journal ‘for and by the servicemen’. Following the men in Charlie Company, this acclaimed musical explores what it means to be a man and fall in love…
Scott Hunter (Grease, The Kissing Dance) will reprise his role as Stu and joining the company are Andy Coxon (Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, Les Misérables) as Mitch, Waylon Jacobs (Chicago, Memphis) as Sarge/Scarlet and Bradley Judge (Don’t Run, Sister Act) as Rotelli.
The rest of the company is completed by Benjamin Cupit, Scott Davies, Lee Dillon-Stuart, Chris Kiely, Kris Marc-Joseph, Mark Paterson, Tom Pepper and Sarah-Louise Young.
This production is directed by James Baker, with musical direction by James Cleeve and choreography by Chris Cuming. Completing the creative team are designer Victoria Hinton, lighting designer Aaron J. Dootson, sound designer Chris Bogg and casting director Benjamin Newsome.
Featuring a compelling story and original music by American brothers David and Joseph Zellnik, Yank! pays homage to the timeless music of the 1940s and shows the struggle to survive in a time and place where the odds are stacked against you.
Orchestrations: Joseph Zellnik
Additional Orchestrations: Matt Aument
The musical is directed by James Baker, and is produced by Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainment, Hope Mill Theatre, Ben Millerman with Jim Kierstead and Guy James.
Charing Cross Theatre
London, WC2N 6NL