Sunday, October 21, 2007

PLAY: "Yank!"

Photo/Jennifer Maufrais Kelly

Before the first chords of Yank!, The Gallery Players management spoke to the audience about ways in which it could help convince them to add more original musicals to their seasons. They mentioned voting for them over at the New York Innovative Theatre Awards. (Check!) They suggested telling their friends about it. (Check!) Then, having focused their creative minds into this wonderful production, they seemed to run out of other ways we could help convince them. Here are a few of mine:

(1) David Zellnik is a wonderful playwright. His last show, Serendib, balanced science and nature, playing the two off each other in a paralleled story between monkey and man. His new musical, Yank! (music by his brother Joe), is a warm-hearted and honest tribute to the WWII era, both in musical styling and gay prejudice. Country boy Stu (Bobby Steggert, well-qualified for the role after being a delightful rube in Roundabout's 110 in the Shade), out of place in the military, finds solace in the strength of Mitch (Maxime de Toledo), whose cool demeanor and charismatic looks (think Ben Affleck) give him the sobriquet "Hollywood." However, their romance is far from dreamlike (though there is a "jump the shark" dream ballet): Stu flees the front when a more "open" soldier, the gay-and-loving-it Artie (a delightful Jeffry Denman) picks him to be a photographer for Yank! magazine.

(2) Revivals are done to expose new audiences to old classics, or to bask in the memories of the past, but new works like Yank! are able to expose old audiences to new classics, while still giving the memories of the past. Here are the enjoyable song stylings of the '40s, but here's a story that's fresh and relevant, too. Languorous radio riffs like "Blue Twilight," up-tempo comic drifts on "Saddest Gal What Am," and tight choral numbers that can play the military aspect ("Credit to the Uniform") in the same breath as the civilian ("Your Squad is Your Squad"). Want a sweet, quiet duet, sung with nothing more distracting than a spotlight? ("A Couple of Regular Guys.") Want a toe-tapping, bring-the-house down number? ("Click.")

(3) It's normally awfully expensive for audiences to give a new show the benefit of the doubt. But $18 tickets scream for people to cross the river, especially when that new show has Broadway talent (Steggert and also Nancy Anderson, who plays all the female parts), a catchy score, and a revealing glimpse at an often glossed over truth about the military. For that price, you do get a few over-quirked actors, but everyone's hard-working, and the chorus of purposefully stereotyped actors ("We got one of each kind," says the Sarge) are as good as their names imply: Tennessee, Czechowski, Professor, and Rotelli, played to the hilt by Tyson Kaup, James Stover, Daniel Shevlin, and Chris Carfizzi.

Truth is, I have an ulterior motive. The Zellnicks have another musical, Casebook of Hapsburg, R---, and given how hard it is to mount even a black box show, we need more theaters with budget-stretching directors (like Igor Goldin, who crisply uses two rolling metal walls in about every way you can think of, and then some), and more audiences willing to tackle stories that have more than mere fluff. The Gallery Players are on the cusp of both, so let's all just push.

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