Chicago Theatre Review
Loving a Man in Uniform
Yank: A WWII Love Story – Pride Films and Plays
It’s 1943 and WWII is raging in Europe. Stu is one of many scared Midwestern draftees to be called to serve.
Giving him something to occupy his mind, Stu’s mother provides him with a journal in which to record his activities, thoughts and personal feelings. Knowing himself well enough, Stu foresees a nightmare existence for the next several years. Not only does the young man know that War is Hell, but he also understands that he’s different from most of the recruits heading off to bootcamp. With very little romantic experience, and housed with so many other hunky young men, Stu eventually realizes that he’s gay. It should be noted that in this era before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, any demonstration of gay affection would be deemed a crime punishable by doing time in the brig. Thus it became very important for a young soldier to keep his romantic interests a guarded secret.
Stu tries his best to succeed in basic training, but he knows he’ll never make a good soldier. He’s continually picked on and called names until a handsome recruit named Mitch comes to his aid. Mitch seems to be more than merely Stu’s bodyguard. During one of their few relaxation periods, he and Stu give in to a moment of romance and Stu falls hopelessly in love with Mitch.
By chance, Stu also meets Artie, a handsome, young, crackerjack photographer for Yank magazine. This military publication was written for and by soldiers. It presented political cartoons, stories about the military, articles detailing combat locations and training facilities and photographs of beautiful movie starlets. Artie finds Stu attractive and makes his move. He also snatches Stu’s journal and is delighted to discover a young, gay man with a talent for writing. Because Stu is so miserable in his present situation, Artie offers him a job as a journalist for Yank. Reluctant to leave Mitch, Stu finally accepts Artie’s offer and leaves Company C for the artistic and personal freedom this position promises.
This is all just the beginning of this beautiful, refreshing WWII love story, that could easily have been lifted from one of those sentimental movie musicals from the 40’s. With a captivating script and score by David and Joseph Zellnik, this Chicago premiere, ambitiously directed by David Zak, offers a perfect, entertaining and educational evening of theatre. Jenna Schoppe choreographs the show with style, pizzazz and an eye for nostalgia. Talented Robert Ollis musically directs, guiding his cast through the close harmonies, smooth melodies and jazzy dance numbers that pay homage to the scores of Rogers & Hammerstein and, more recently, the stylings of Broadway’s recent “Bandstand.” Ollis conducts his accomplished five-member band onstage on a small platform that’s part of Roger Wykes’ inventive scenic design. Wykes makes excellent use of the intimate Broadway space, including creating an upper level and a sliding pocket door on stage level that allows scenes to emerge out of nowhere.
Besides having a great theatrical vehicle, half of the success of a finely-tuned production begins with a capable cast. In this, David Zak once again proves his undeniable eye for finding talented triple-threats. Boyishly handsome Matthew Huston is the whole package, in the leading role of Stu. An accomplished singer, an excellent dancer, an eloquent actor and a charismatic young man who truly looks the part, Huston has finally earned a leading role that taps into all of his strengths. Carrying the story as narrator and leading man, Stu’s heartbreaking frustration and emotional anguish take a front seat to all the musical numbers, making this show a touching love story, first, and a tuneful tribute to the boys who served during WWII, second.
As Mitch, William Dwyer gets to often demonstrate his glorious, professionally-trained voice, frequently heard around the country on opera stages, and most recently as Freddie Eynsford-Hill in Musical Theater Works’ “My Fair Lady.” Here he opens the show with his gorgeous rendition of the wistful “Remembering You,” and later joins with Stu in “Just True” and the lovely “A Couple of Regular Guys.” It doesn’t hurt that Stu’s love interest is also a likable, ruggedly handsome actor, a young man who shows a wide range of emotions in this role, from macho tough to desperately lovestruck. Dwyer’s only weak moment comes when he tries too hard to show drunkeness. Otherwise, this talented musical actor leaves his mark, making his much-welcome debut with Pride Films & Plays.
Always impressive and theatrically brilliant in every musical role he undertakes, from “West Side Story” to “Hairspray,” John Marshall Jr. creates a splendid, memorable character as Artie. Mr. Marshall is a good-looking young man, with a sly smile, a smooth, sophisticated air and a fine
singing voice. He’s sexy, sharp and sure of himself as a proud gay photographer for Yank magazine. Where he particularly stands out is in his choreographic abilities, shown off to perfection, along with Huston, in their song-and-dance duets, “Click” and “Light on Your Feet.” Kudos to Molly LeCaptain, who plays every single female character in this show. The mistress of the quick wig and costume change, she’s appropriately maternal as Stu’s mother, hard-as-nails as the General’s girl Friday and sultry as every songbird singer on the radio. She gently caresses songs like “The Saddest Gal What Am,” “Get It, Got It, Good,” the lovely “Blue Twilight” and the sentimental “My Soldier.” Ms. LeCaptain shows off a versatile, powerhouse vocal style that should bring her to the attention of casting directors all over Chicago.
The show’s hardworking ensemble of GI Joes make it easy to love a man in uniform. They include Xavier Euzarraga as Italian lover Rotelli, Raymond Goodall and Parker Guidry as an hilarious India and Melanie, Will Kazda as comic Czechowski, Brian Kulaga as both Cohen and Speedy, Marc Prince as the strict Sarge, Nate Strain as trouble-making Tennessee and Tommy Thurston as scholarly Professor. All these handsome, young triple-threats bring joy and rhythm to this extraordinary production. Collectively and individually they make “Yank!” sing, croon and boogie-woogie with style, energy and heart. This is a lovingly-produced love story that Chicago musical theatre aficionados and Boystown boys won’t want to miss.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 11-February 18 by Pride Films & Plays at The Broadway, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office or by going to www.pridefilmsandplays.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.