Sunday, March 3, 2019

Greatest Generation blues: District Theatre's 'Yank!' gives voice to hidden passions in the World War II U.S. Army

Nothing quite as transformative as a big war happens in most American lives, but beneath the surface there have
Mitch (Tanner Brunson) comforts Stuart (Jonathan Krouse) in "Yank!"
long been other transformations pushing to emerge into full, free view. Yet conformity is always the official requirement, especially to the military mind, and that means that a society's reigning values acquire the force of law. There are no atheists in foxholes, says the adage; and that presumption once covered unconventional sexual orientation as well.

That is the difficulty at the core of "Yank!," a musical of gay romance getting its first local production now at the District Theatre,  the old home of Theatre on the Square, 627 Massachusetts Ave. The product of Joseph Zellnik (music) and David Zellnik (book and lyrics), the show was brought here by Tim Spradlin, a local theater veteran who believes passionately in "Yank!" and directs this production.

Seen Saturday on the District Theatre's Christel DeHaan stage, the performance nearly brought off the complex blend of choreography, song, and drama it requires to make maximum impact. The balance of comedy and pathos was managed vividly and with the intensity the World War II story demands. On a stage of few props and minimal set, slide projections of period photos helped lend suitable context.

The men of Company C celebrate the squad.
In an era when military service was (without the slightest controversy) seen as vital to the nation's survival, young American men had to follow an even stricter model of masculinity than most of them feel today. Yet the prejudices and expectations of 70-plus years ago continue to exert control.

The World War II model required men in service to miss two kinds of women in different ways. There was Mom, and there was the girlfriend. The latter was boosted into fantasy by such Hollywood celebrities as Betty Grable, Lana Turner, and Rita Hayworth, swooned over in publicity photos kept underneath mattresses. Whoever got the enlistees' juices flowing was always assumed to be female. Male bonding was necessary for the sake of survival, but there could be nothing erotic about it.

The illustrative Zellnik song, given the requisite gusto by the cast's Army recruits and draftees of Company C,  is "Your Squad Is Your Squad."  The deliberate redundancy of the song's title is perfect to make the internal rapport of each army unit seem self-evident. But such mutual support and commitment could never extend to the kind of romance that develops between the popular Mitch, adept at "passing" for straight, and Stuart, a shy, clumsy private who keeps a revealing journal that will prove to be his undoing.

In the second act, the shared dream of the two secretive lovers gets an outing in song just before "Your Squad Is Your Squad" commands the stage. It's the dream that Jonathan Krouse (Stuart) and Tanner Brunson (Mitch) sing into being in "A Couple of Regular Guys," a hymn to a blissfully shared post-war life that is never to be. In this song and elsewhere, Krouse and Brunson made the romance come alive and communicated it with an unfaltering depth and energy. The characters' surreptitious behavior seemed as natural as their unguarded moments of free, passionate expression. The story rests on the delicate balance Stuart and Mitch maintain, and the lead-role performances went to the nth degree in making the show work. The interrogation of Stuart approaches torture, and Krouse brought the right intensity to his victimization.

There were difficult ensemble numbers that varied in their security and balance Saturday night, but the vocals, supported by an offstage band, usually hung together well. The score isn't an easy one, and the band, behind a curtain off to one side of the theater's wide stage, often ran into intonation problems.  The edginess of the harmonies, whether intentional or not, certainly underlined the dramatic tension. And coordination between voices and instruments usually hit the bull's-eye. Conductor Michael Davis and vocal director John Phillips trained the musical forces to survey and command the broad landscape well enough to move the story of divided loyalties along and deliver its essence.

Two other notable performances in the dozen-strong cast deserve individual mention. Jessica Hawkins took the role of "Every Woman" — from the era's torch-song stylists and sentimental big-band singers to a role reflecting the same-sex attraction that women also had to hide in order to survive.  She shares her expertise in "Get, Got It, Good." The solo "Blue Twilight" wove a tapestry of romance, and "The Saddest Gal What Am" represented the silly aspect of what so many couples separated by war must have felt deeply.

As Artie, D. Scott Robinson represented the type within military and corporate structures who manage to get what they want, the people who game the system. A photographer for "Yank," the tabloid for servicemen to which Stuart is assigned as reporter, Artie sees Stuart for who he is and pushes back against the naive man's link to the ambivalent Mitch. He's as out as can be, under the circumstances. He knows how to make the less restrictive job of army photographer work for him. The role is a less rascally version of Billis in "South Pacific," less sordid than Milo Minderbinder in "Catch-22." The audience is likely meant to admire Artie's openness and frank assertion of his identity against a repressive system. That's best expressed in "Click," a number that requires precise tap-dance skills that Robinson came close to but the three-man support contingent largely missed.

"Yank!" conveys, from its title on out, the esprit de corps the magazine of the title is supposed to promote, never exposing the horrors of war but always meant to boost morale. It can also be taken as a reminder that inducted soldiers are yanked out of their personal identities and forced to conform in often self-denying ways. That  applies across the board to the military's hostility to individualism; to gay warriors of our parents' and grandparents' generation, the yanking was much more severe. Many peacetime bridges would have to be crossed before more positive transformations could be embraced, though retrograde forces survive.

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