Writer: Joseph Zellnik (Music), David Zellnik (Book and Lyrics)
Director: James Baker
Reviewer: Christie-Luke Jones
The Zellnik brothers bring their exuberant off-Broadway success story to The Big Smoke, affording Londoners a thoroughly engrossing view of the unfamiliar battleground of same-sex romance during World War Two.
Yank! hinges around the breakneck wartime metamorphosis of Stu, played with wide-eyed believability by Scott Hunter, a clumsy teen introvert thrust into a veritable lion’s den of aggressive and often frustrated heterosexuality. Stu cuts a much mal-aligned figure as his peers in the 89th Squadron lament the soft-bodied sweethearts they left back home and trade dog-eared pinups like pick ’n’ mix.
The individual members of the 89th combine to form a familiar but charming spectrum of wartime personalities, from the expletive-spewing Sarge (Waylon Jacobs) to the handsome, olive-skinned Sicilian Rotelli (Bradley Judge), eager to send news of his stateside successes back home.
The audience laughs along with their incessant sparring and sweat-soaked postulating, but it’s not until the central romance of the piece is ignited that they are offered anything more substantial to chew on.
Indeed, Yank! excels as a production whenever Stu is paired with the brooding Marlon Brando/James Dean hybrid Mitch (Andy Coxon). Coxon draws focus with a laid-back charm that lulls both Stu and the entire audience into a state of silent captivation. You can practically hear their lips touch for the first time, such is the stupefying effect of Hunter and Coxon’s onstage dynamic.
The narrative moves along at a brisk pace and no one scene or musical number seems bloated or undeserving of its running time. The separate fates of Stu and the rest of the 89th perpetually entwine and unravel as the war moves from the training camps to the stark reality of the Pacific frontline.
The events of the US Army’s war with Japan are punctuated by a series of deeply atmospheric musical numbers evoking both the swagger and sultry melancholia of the 1940s musical zeitgeist. Sarah-Louise Young showcases her immense vocal versatility, as well as facilitates a deft juxtaposition of Stu and Mitch’s romance with the more recognisable male-female wartime love story.
Fred Astaire-inspired tap number Click is breathtakingly choreographed and heralds Chris Kiely’s wonderfully cheeky turn as Artie, ace reporter at the production’s eponymous wartime editorial and Stu’s streetwise guide along the path to sexual exploration.
Your Squad Is Your Squad oozes with the feel-good factor and represents a perfect marriage of the show’s impishly tongue-in-cheek humour with a poignant reflection on the importance of fraternal loyalty amid the cold brutality of war.
In terms of set design, it’s perhaps disappointing that the audience isn’t treated to a little more variety. Crates are stacked and unstacked, and the odd flourish of red or blue lighting attempts to reflect the mood onstage, but overall this aspect of the production seems largely underutilised. This shortcoming is particularly jarring during an interrogation scene, which despite a gripping performance from Hunter and the injection of a disorienting and fear-inducing soundscape, still feels rather over-lit and aesthetically neglected.
Yank! is an earnest, sweet, and undeniably entertaining piece of musical theatre that alas falls short of greatness. The show suffers from somewhat heavy-handed exposition and an apparent over-willingness to neatly resolve all narrative conflict within the strict confines of its two-hour running time. As a result, Yank! breaks ground on several fresh and thought-provoking perspectives but ultimately fails to offer the audience anything truly ground-breaking.
Runs until 19 August 2017 | Image: Claire Bilyard