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This surprisingly earnest musical look at the hidden history of gay WWII soldiers
With a title like ‘Yank!’, you might be expecting a fair few sniggers from this new musical, which arrives at the Charing Cross Theatre via Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, where it made its European premiere this March (it was a hit off-Broadway back in 2010). But while there are a couple of cheeky innuendos, this is actually a heartfelt tale of the hidden history of being gay in the American military during World War II.
‘Yank!’ is the name of the propagandist army magazine that shy, awkward and secretly gay 18-year-old Stu (Scott Hunter) ends up writing for, after being drafted and falling for the dashing Mitch (Andy Coxon).
From the stenographers who name themselves after ‘Gone with the Wind’ characters, to Chris Kiely’s worldly-wise photojournalist, Artie, who takes Stu under his wing and opens his eyes, David Zellnik’s book sets out a landscape of gay life just under the radar, threatened by persecution.
David’s lyrics and Joseph Zellnik’s catchy score set a love story it would have been impossible to tell at the time within a retro, Rodgers and Hammerstein 1940s-style musical. There are colourful ensemble numbers and fictional radio hits, the latter sung with effortless pizzazz by Sarah-Louise Young.
The high point of James Baker’s slick and engaging production is Chris Cuming’s sparkling choreography, which turns Stu’s forays into gay life into a tap dance. Riffing winkingly on Gene Kelley and Fred Astaire, these sequences are fun and imaginative. It's the closest 'Yank!' gets to properly subverting the form it's paying homage to.
Hunter is hugely affecting as Stu, while Coxon works around a few sudden character leaps to capture macho Mitch’s closeted anguish. But, blimey, if this isn’t also the straightest gay romance ever, as Stu ditches the hook-ups for his one true love. There’d nothing wrong with that, necessarily, if ‘Yank!’ didn’t treat it as the only outcome worth any weight.
It’s impossible to argue with ‘Yanks!’s message about being true to yourself, but, actually, the most colourful gay characters are kept on the periphery – a fun sideshow, like those brilliant ‘bad’ girls who never get the guy in 1940s films. It’s clearly unintended, but there’s a mixed message here.