Two star-crossed WWII-era lovers kiss in a shadow, figuratively and literally, yearning for one smiling day to be just a couple of regular guys. Coming from the unheralded songwriting team of the Zellnik brothers, “Yank!” is the most intriguing new American musical to reach New York in several seasons. Lyricist-librettist David Zellnik devised the original material around Army weekly Yank magazine, working with his composer sibling Joseph.
Raw recruit Stu (Bobby Steggert) is 18, out of place and miserably lonely. He’s befriended in the barracks by smooth, Jersey-born Mitch (Ivan Hernandez), but their relationship develops awkwardly. When Mitch rejects Stu, the latter is recruited by Yank reporter Artie (Jeffry Denman), who is searching for both a gay buddy and a staff photographer.
Stu transfers to the cushy journalistic life while the soldiers ship overseas. He inevitably finds his way back to the squad and Mitch in the South Pacific on the eve of “the big one.” Complications ensue, and they don’t all go off happily into the sunset.
All this is set to a bright and enjoyable score that pays homage to the Rodgers & Hammerstein sound. The material calls for a certain amount of 1940s pastiche, but the Bros. Zellnik demonstrate craft and skill.
The title song stretches across seven minutes or so, artfully following the motley recruits through induction and training camp. Another extended number, “Click,” indoctrinates Stu in a different facet of Army life, with tap shoes unexpectedly and delightfully bringing musical comedy into the picture: Artie and Stu click as like-minded pals, Stu clicks as a press photog, and the taps click up a storm. The score peaks with “A Couple of Regular Guys,” a winning ballad of middle-class longing that patrons at the press preview were already whistling during intermission.
Sensitive material is enhanced by a fine cast. Steggert — who gave an intense turn as the explosive Younger Brother in the recently shuttered “Ragtime” — carries the show, his singing and dramatic talents heightened by an almost crushing vulnerability.
Hernandez, from the lamentable “Romantic Poetry,” looks something like a non-neurotic Montgomery Clift and sings like a dream (which is very much the point). Denman provides comedy relief and a touch of maturity as Artie, along with supplying the show’s enlivening choreography.
The assorted women are cannily written for one actress, and Nancy Anderson is extremely good, stepping out of the gimmick to play a major role in the final scenes. The rest are equally strong, especially Tally Sessions and Andrew Durand as the Brooklyn and Tennessee members of the squad, respectively, and Todd Faulkner as Sarge and other roles.
Piece originated at the New York Musical Theater Festival in 2005, with subsequent developmental stagings at Brooklyn’s Gallery Players and San Diego’s Diversionary Theater. “Yank!” marks the York’s most impressive production in memory; the cast of 12 and five-piece band is lavish by company standards, with enhancement from eight commercial producers. Even so, set designer Ray Klausen is forced to make do with low resources (but high imagination).
Show seems a likely prospect for transfer to a larger Off Broadway or possibly a small Broadway venue. Hopefully with further tinkering.
Director Igor Goldin has gotten good performances, but the staging could be improved. The character of Mitch could use some motivational work; a few book inconsistencies might be worked out; and a 1940s-style dream ballet is considerably more distracting than helpful. Denman seems to lovingly incorporate poses from Agnes de Mille’s Broadway ballets, but this serious stretch of “Yank!” is perhaps not the place for it.
All told, however, “Yank!” is a bright, original and moving winner of a musical that earns its exclamation point.