The men of Charlie Company are first described as a unit of types fit for the movies. There’s Czechowski (Will Kazda), the smart aleck with a heart of gold; Rotelli (Xavier Euzarraga), the immigrant on his way to becoming a citizen; Tennessee (Nate Strain), the country boy; Mitch (William Dwyer), the handsome all-American hero. And then there’s Stu (Matthew Huston), nicknamed “Light Loafers” by his fellow soldiers, because he’s clumsy and quiet and does not seem that interested in girls.
Stu is the hero of “Yank! A World War II Love Story,” a musical now in its Chicago premiere at Pride Films and Plays. Composer Joseph Zellnick and lyricist/book writer David Zellnick, who are brothers, deliver a story that embraces the romantic formulas set by classic war films and light-hearted musicals; but in Stu, they create a profound character study of what it means to fight for connection in society that doesn’t recognize your wants or rights. The mix of joy and drama isn’t always a comfortable one in David Zak’s production, but I find myself thinking about the show every few hours since seeing it. The dreaminess of the experience more than makes up for its jarring sections.
Soon after arriving at basic training, Stu develops an immediate crush on Mitch that he meticulously hides away in the journal he carts from his bunk to the South Pacific. It is his observations and choices that provide the structure for this story about self-discovery. After admitting his feelings to Mitch on a late-night train ride to their next base, Mitch first reciprocates, then rejects his friend. Lucky for Stu, he soon meets Artie (John Marshall, Jr.), a proud though discreet gay photographer for the Army features magazine Yank, and his world opens up. The men travel all over profiling soldiers, with Artie photographing and Stu writing; Artie also teaches Stu how to live as openly as he can while under the watch of Army brass, and our hero finds a measure of self-acceptance in his travels, before being called to the front by his buddies. Mitch is drinking heavily after the death of one of their comrades-in-arms; only Stu can get through to him, and maybe, rekindle their love for one another.
Joseph Zellnick provides a lush score for this romance, particularly in the opening — oft repeated — number, “Rememb’ring You.” David Zellnick’s lyrics range from biting and funny to illuminating, as in Stu’s late show ballad, “Just True.” The music direction by Robert Ollis is top notch, with the orchestra creating the wide-ranging war scenes, and with the men’s voices blending beautifully, as they croon about pin-up girls or gripe about shining shoes.
David Zak’s direction feels a tad broad in the first act, especially in relationship to Artie’s instruction of Stu’s secret sexual escapades. An embrace of the closet is something that falls away in the second act, as the Army interrogates Stu, but there is little in Zak’s work that indicates future problems may be ahead, and watching as a present-day viewer, it was hard not to get lost in immediate worry for the characters. That is partly the nature of the play, which is meant to be a romance above all, but the tight book work in the second act complicates Stu and Mitch’s relationship, and I would have enjoyed seeing more hints of that reality earlier on. That said, the emotional connection between Huston and Dwyer is wonderful and well sung; Dwyer, in particular, has a powerful voice that fleshes out Mitch’s confusion and passion. And Marshall excels in his dance numbers, bringing an athletic energy and life to the stage every time he appears. Molly LeCaptain stands out as a variety of radio singers, and one efficient, honest secretary with a hidden life to match Huston and Marshall’s. And the ensemble attacks their moments of humor and heart with gusto.
“Yank!” will stick with you because of the heart displayed in the script and by the performers. What seems simple at the start becomes complex, and the tunes are worth whistling on the way out the door, only for the music’s true meaning, and the story’s true resonance, to land later in surprising ways.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Beautiful music and heartfelt story make this show haunt you.
DIE RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”
Show: “Yank! A World War II Love Story”
Company: Pride Films and Plays