Maxime de Toledo and Bobby Steggert in Yank!
(© Mark Krieger)
Maxime de Toledo and Bobby Steggert in Yank!
(© Mark Krieger)
Long before the advent of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," there were gays in the military, a fact made clear by David and Joseph Zellnik's engaging new musical Yank!, currently at the Gallery Players in Brooklyn. Set during World War II, Yank! involves the coming out and coming of age of a young gay man named Stu (Bobby Steggert), who meets Mitch (Maxime de Toledo), a handsome young private with whom he becomes smitten during basic training. The two share a tender kiss, but the sexually confused Mitch rebuffs further advances.

Prior to shipping overseas, Stu encounters Artie (Jeffry Denman), a reporter for Yank magazine, a publication made by soldiers for soldiers. Artie offers Stu -- who proved rather inept during training -- a chance to escape the horrors of actual combat by becoming a photographer for Yank; he also furthers Stu's (homo)sexual education. While Mitch and Stu are eventually reunited after Artie pulls some strings to get them assigned to do a profile on Stu's former squad, the homophobic atmosphere of the U.S. army conspires against the lovers.

The Zellnik brothers have crafted an old-fashioned musical with a contemporary, socially conscious sensibility. The terrific score manages the difficult feat of invoking the musical styles of the era without sounding completely derivative. The haunting "Remembering You" could easily have gotten radio play in the 1940s, and the tuner pays tribute to the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and other tunesmiths. There's even an Oklahoma!-inspired dream ballet in the second act, complete with Dream Stu (Jonathan Day) and Dream Mitch (Chad Harlow). Unfortunately, the sequence comes across as too much of a self-aware wink to the conventions of the past, whereas the rest of the musical, directed by Igor Goldin, is played more sincerely.

Steggert masterfully takes the audience with him on Stu's journey from shy, insecure recruit, to impassioned lover, to defiant fighter. He's particularly powerful in the anthem "Just True," which he sings to Mitch. "What we have is special, what we are is not," he intones, arguing for a self-acceptance of the pair's homosexuality, rather than the shame that society imposes upon their union. De Toledo's handsome features and sexy smile make it clear why Mitch earns the nickname "Hollywood," during basic training. The actor has great chemistry with Steggert, and his rich baritone sounds like a caress. For his part, Denman positively explodes with energy and charisma, particularly during his wonderful tap dancing sequences (the actor also doubles as the show's choreographer). His duet with Steggert, "Click," is the song-and-dance highlight of the show.

All the women within the musical -- from the enlisted mens' various sweethearts to radio sirens to a lesbian officer -- are portrayed by Nancy Anderson, whose gorgeous voice blesses numbers like "Saddest Gal What Am" and "Blue Twilight." Curiously, when she croons into a non-working microphone (all actors are unamplified), she doesn't project as well as she should; but when that device is taken away, her voice rings out loud and clear.

Sadly, the rest of the supporting cast proves uneven. This is particularly true of the members of Mitch and Stu's combat squad. The make-up of the unit hearkens back to the kind of platoon buddy movies where men from different backgrounds come together and find common ground. There's a "hick" from the Midwest, a heavily accented Polish man from Brooklyn, a nerdy guy nicknamed "the professor," etc. Too often, however, they come across as broad caricatures rather than flesh and blood people.

Yank! was previously seen at Philadelphia's Gay and Lesbian Theatre Festival and the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2005, and has undergone a few changes since -- most significantly in the show's framing sequence. Whereas it used to begin with an older Stu in a nursing home reminiscing about his past, it now starts with a nameless young man in the present (also played by Steggert) who has discovered Stu's journal in a junk shop. The shift allows for a heightened dramatic tension, as we are no longer certain of Stu's final fate, and also serves as an effective means of showing how Stu's story is passed on to a new generation.