Charing Cross Theatre
10 July 2017
Growing up on the musicals of Rodgers & Hammerstein, I would never have imagined that Curly, Billy and Emile could have ever had eyes for anyone but Laurey, Julie and Nellie. But in Yank!, writers Joseph and David Zellnik have been inspired by the golden age of musical theatre and film to create a show where Stu only has eyes for Mitch. It follows the two young men’s hesitant romance against the backdrop of military service and homophobia at the end of World War Two without sugar-coating the risks they are taking.
The show is peppered with 1940s-style ballads that are given new meaning by the gay storyline but the show is much more than just pastiche: it adds a more contemporary tone to the classic musical styles alongside lyrics that would never have been allowed during the heyday of Rodgers & Hammerstein. While there is plenty of humour, the story does not hold back from depicting the horrors of war and the dangers that gay men faced if found out. Based on research into the period, it offers a glimpse of how war provided new opportunities for gay men to get together but also how they needed to use “acrobatic thinking” to avoid being caught.
Despite the darker themes, there are moments of joy, from the tap-dancing ensemble of soldiers and a Gershwin-style all-male pas de deux to the hilariously camp journalists on the eponymous servicemen’s magazine, Yank, who echo fans of Sex and the City in their love for Gone With the Wind.
Originally an Off-Broadway hit in 2010, Yank! had its European premiere at Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester in only spring this year, and it is this production, with nearly all the same cast, that has transferred to London. Directed by James Baker, it is an accomplished, tightly paced show with a flawless cast led by Andy Coxon as macho Mitch, with matinee idol good looks and a velvety mellifluous singing voice, and Scott Hunter as Stu who starts out as a nervous, innocent 18-year-old but goes on a challenging journey that helps him find his own identity and inner courage. Other notable performances include Chris Kiely as Stu’s mentor and friend Artie who introduces him to the wartime world of gay life. Sarah-Louise Young – the only woman in the cast – plays all the female roles, using her skills as a character-based cabaret performer to present a variety of glamorous singers in popular musical styles of the period as well as a tough, plain-speaking gay servicewoman.
Complemented by sharp, exuberant choreography by Chris Cuming, Joseph Zellnik’s score is a rich, melodic pleasure, with orchestrations by Joseph Zellnik and additional orchestrations by Matt Aument. The many moods, from romantic beach scenes to the horror of the war in the Pacific, are expertly conveyed through Aaron J Dootson’s atmospheric lighting and Chris Bogg’s at times unsettling sound design, against an effective set devised by Victoria Hinton.
Military conflict and the persecution of homosexuals give Yank! a darker tone than simply a musical romance of boy meets boy but, after all, Rodgers & Hammerstein balanced the feelgood factors of their shows with death, Nazis and even the war in the South Pacific. In Yank!, the writers remind us that things will one day get better for gay men like Stu and Mitch thanks to the courage of those who fought during the war and went on to fight for gay liberation in the decades that followed.
Running to August 19, 2017