How can we begin to imagine what life might have been like as a soldier in World War II?
Pride Films and Plays presents YANK!: A World War II Love Story
With music and lyrics by Joseph and David Zellnik and directed by Pride Films and Plays Executive Director David Zak, Yank! begins with “S” (Matthew Huston) – a modern-day young man in San Francisco who comes across a diary belonging to a World War II American soldier named Stu (Huston). As S reads the diary aloud, the story comes to life and unfolds before the audience. S is transported into the role of Stu writing about his experiences from the moment he enlists, to the day he decides to write for the army magazine Yank, to the very last journal entry upon his return home.
Through the diary, the audience learns about the journey of a young, gay man finding himself in the midst of a war and a world that is not entirely ready to accept him. Not only does the audience learn through Stu’s personal story, but also through the narratives of the other soldiers – particularly Stu’s love interest, Mitch (William Dwyer) and Artie (John Marshall Jr.), a photographer for the magazine Yank that brings Stu on board as a journalist to cover the war in an attempt to save him from the front lines.
Creative Design and Storytelling
Through the use of the character S and Stu’s diary, Joseph and David Zellnik utilize a fascinating mode of storytelling to invite the audience into the mind of a soldier. While it would have been nice to see the convention utilized in a more complex manner, it still made for an interesting story. Because the musical is driven by Stu’s voice and experience, the other characters become forces running through and around his life, influencing his choices and journey.
Zak and Choreographer Jenna Schoppe find key moments to cleverly bring that element to life, particularly in the beginning through the musical number “Yank.” The number itself details the journey a man takes from making the decision to enlist to becoming a full-fledged soldier, ready to ship out to the front lines. “Yank” refers not only to American Yankee, but also the name of the army magazine that everyone reads to learn the latest news of the war.
In this piece, S integrates himself into the memories of the diary, and becomes Stu, the 19-year-old author. As he falls deeper into the story, S becomes a stronger part of the action. Zak’s staging transitions from placing S on the outskirts watching the men enlist to joining himself – planting himself in the lineup, participating in the training, changing his clothes, and becoming Stu. Throughout the number, men push S/Stu around, forcing him to fall deeper and deeper.
Not only does Zak’s staging choice up the pressure of the moment, but he also helps the audience see Stu’s experience of constantly being pulled in different directions by the other characters, which only increases as the story moves on.
Scenic Designer Roger Wykes takes this element to a new level through his minimal, yet effective stage. The space itself is fairly bare, but in the back, there is a wall with a sliding door that when open, can reveal different rooms with various backdrops. Wykes allows for the quick transitions between locations, further emphasizing the idea that Stu’s story keeps moving and the audience must work to keep up. The ending result feels seamless, and appropriately allows the audience to slowly realize the convention of the diary and how they are to understand the story through both the eyes of S and Stu.
Fun Musical Numbers
The musical score of Yank is full of 1940s style pieces, and the combined efforts of the talented cast and Schoppe add a fun and often jaunty element to the musical – particularly the larger ensemble numbers.
“Light on Your Feet,” featuring the vocal talents of John Marshall Jr. as Artie, is an absolute blast to watch on the stage. The number acts as Artie’s advice to Stu on how to survive in the army as a gay man – stay flexible, uncommitted, and never commit to any one place for too long – remember to “stay light on your feet.” The piece is snarky, Marshall’s comedic timing and stage presence is spot-on, and he masters Schoppe’s choreography with ease. The fast-paced beat allows for the ensemble to showcase their movement talents as well, creating opportunities for some exceptional and comedic dance routines.
While the upbeat numbers are a joy, the cast also masters the slower, more somber pieces. “Remembr’ing You,” as both the opening number and closer, acts as a theme for the musical as a whole. When S finds the diary, he first notices the lyrics from the song, and as he reads them, William Dwyer as Mitch enters and sings to Stu. His lovely baritone voice rings through the theater, and the emotion of the song shines through.
While the soloists and primary leads held their own, the musical would be nothing without a strong ensemble. The stage chemistry amongst the cast is clear, and helps carry the show along.
Marc Prince, Raymond Goodall, and Parker Guidry are an absolute riot as Scarlett, India, and Melanie, and though their time on stage is short, the comedic timing makes their scene of gossip in the army one of the most memorable. Based on the laughter that ensued during their scene, it would seem the audience would agree.
The men who comprise the 89th Squad – the squad that is the primary focus of the show, are a joy to watch, particularly in their number “Your Squad is your Squad.” The group features William Dwyer (Mitch), Xavier Euzarraga (Rotelli), Will Kazda (Czechowski), Nate Strain (Tenessee), Tommy Thurston (Professor), and of course, Matthew Huston (Stu). The song details the importance of loving your squad through thick and thin, and Zak clearly helped the crew develop that authentic relationship.
Catchy musical numbers and a strong ensemble make Yank!: A World War II Love Story an enjoyable way to spend any evening.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Playing through February 18, 2018
Thursdays at 7:30pm
Fridays at 7:30pm
Saturdays at 7:30pm
Sundays at 3:30pm
Run Time: 85 minutes, without intermission.
Pride Arts Center
4139 N. Broadway
Chicago, IL 60613
About the Author:
Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters.
Click here to read more Picture this Post stories by Lauren Katz.