Book & Lyrics: David Zellnik
Music: Joseph Zellnik
Director: James Baker
Reviewer: May Mellstrom
It is 1943 and teenager Stu is drafted into the US Army, scared he will not have ‘what it takes’ to make it as a soldier. Encompassing a thoughtful coming-of-age narrative and a charming wartime romance, what follows could be a typical musical of the 1940s. Joseph Zellnik evokes the tone of classic Rodgers & Hammerstein in his luscious score but combines with brother David Zellnik’s book and lyrics to tell a far richer tale. For Stu knows he is different and despite his best attempts to ‘fit in’ it is not the pin-up girls of the movies he falls for, but the easygoing allure of fellow Private, ‘Hollywood’ Mitch.
Despite seven Drama Desk nominations for the off-Broadway original in 2010, this production at Manchester’s up-and-coming Hope Mill Theatre marks the European premiere of Yank! Sharing a title with that of the magazine published by the military during World War 2, the exclamation mark does the show a slight disservice; it is far more nuanced and tender than it’s punctuated name suggests.
At a time when being gay was still stigmatised within society and with institutionalised homophobia rife within the military Yank! explores the danger and struggles Stu and Mitch face for simply falling in love. It’s success hinges on the casting of this central pair and Scott Hunter and Barnaby Hughes could not be bettered. Hunter’s open-hearted sincerity is perfectly matched with Hughes’ matinee idol charm and together they perform with complete conviction.
They are supported by a strong ensemble; most notably Chris Kiely as Artie who leads an exhilarating tap number with vigour and sole female Sarah-Louise Young who shows great versatility in both performance and vocal style.
The eye-catching choreography from Chris Cuming is brought to life with precision and energy and a seven-piece band do complete justice to Zellnik’s varied score, which fuses traditional musical theatre with the big band and swing sounds of the 1940s.
James Baker’s direction tells the story in a simple, believable way and allows time for the chemistry in the central relationship to evolve and grow. The only misstep is the slightly too over-the-top Stenno ‘Girls’, who inject humour into the show but strike a false note in a piece that largely feels truthful and real.
Building to a genuinely moving conclusion however, Yank! fully deserves its instant standing ovation and is a touching, heart-rending show superbly performed by a cast oozing with confidence and class. Don’t miss out on a rare opportunity to see a rather special musical from a producer and creative team currently going from strength to strength.
Runs until 8 April 2017 | Image: Anthony Robling