By Sheri and Josh Flanders
Sheri and Josh are an interracial, married, Chicago-based comedy writing and performing duo and contributors to ChicagolandMusicalTheatre.com. The following conversation was spawned by attending Pride Films & Plays production of “YANK! A WWII Love Story.”
Sheri: The Pride Arts Center is my favorite kind of theater. 1: They consistently put on top-notch work. 2: They are right around the corner from our apartment.
Josh: It’s true, you don’t like walking very far. If it was another block we’d have to take a taxi.
Sheri: Only in the winter. Yank! is a love story about gay soldiers set against the backdrop of WWII. It is also funny, expertly directed and performed and well-written. It’s a solidly five-star production and highly recommended. I demand that everyone treat yourself to talented men dancing and singing immediately.
Josh: The story follows a freshly enlisted Stu, a young and frightened teenager (Matthew Huston) who struggles to fit into the stereotypically machismo culture of the Army. Along the way, he not only finds a few friends, he also finds himself as he struggles to come to terms with his sexuality and falls in love with one of his fellow soldiers, Mitch (William Dwyer). These two are perfectly cast against each other. Huston’s smaller frame and awkward self-consciousness masks a simmering confidence building throughout the show. And Dwyer’s imposing frame and classic manly stature masks a subtle doubt and struggle to accept this forbidden love.
Sheri: As Stu (Huston) grows up, he begins to arm himself not only with rifles and grenades, but the essential codebreaking tools for survival as a gay man living in a straight man’s world. A play like this is mandatory viewing for hetero folks like me. Although we obviously understand that homophobia is wrong, that understanding can be fairly academic and basic, not having walked in those shoes. Having the privilege to be educated on the nuanced practicalities and often hilarious ingenuity of living life gives me a deeper understanding of the grave risks of living life while gay in the 1940’s – and unfortunately still today.
Josh: Though Yank! tackles heavy topics, it is actually extraordinarily light in tone and peppered with many hilarious moments.
Sheri: I always bring the mood down to talk about the serious stuff in our reviews.
Josh: It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it. From the moment the play opens, we’re whisked away to a time-gone-by that is at once welcoming and familiar.
Sheri: This is a music-lover’s musical. Behind a heartbreakingly lovely ivory scrim (shout-out to Scenic Designer Roger Wykes for that gem) hides a top-notch swinging band, featuring a clarinet, piano and brass which serves up a score that is simply a cut above the average musical in terms of sophistication. The story is set to the classic gorgeous sounds of the era, and the performers are up to the task with voices that cradle your ears on a pillow of sound. Molly LeCapitan provides an outstanding performance, doing double-duty by playing EVERY SINGLE FEMALE CHARACTER IN THE ENTIRE MUSICAL.
Josh: And killing her musical numbers in a classic 1940s style. Costume Designer Uriel Gomez deserves a medal for all of those wigs and costume changes. And Choreographer Jenna Schoppe provides complex and varied dance numbers that crackle with energy and excitement and make a small space seem like a Broadway show.
Sheri: I cannot stand anemic dancing in a musical and this cast absolutely delivered. Which brings me to the character of Artie (John Marshall Jr.) who steals the entire show. I swear this kid is the second coming of Gene Kelly. He oozes charisma and can act, dance and sing with a level of quality that is rare to find in one performer. If he doesn’t become a movie star one day, there is literally no justice in this world.
Josh: You know I’m sitting right here! But seriously, it’s ridiculous that one person can be so talented. Okay, I’m jealous. Remember that time we tried to swing dance in a show?
Sheri: I’m pretty sure I broke a hip.
Josh: This is the kind of musical that will ruin you for other musicals. It’s a well-written love story with witty and heartwarming lyrics and music, and every performer in the cast is great or exceptional, no half-hearted performances. This is a beautiful romance, a story about unrequited gay male love that is sweet and passionate. And they have a show on Valentine’s Day, a great date night!
Sheri: The only issue I have with the musical falls on the writers of the script, not the cast. This period piece touches upon the discrimination and dehumanization of the Japanese during WWII by American soldiers and is illustrated with period-appropriate slurs casually bandied about. Though an accurate representation of the past, as a person of color it is always a bit itchy to sit through depictions of discrimination when the cast is mostly white, and addressing and unpacking race relations is an afterthought, not a major theme. A tastefully-as-could-feasibly-be-done dramatic flashback illustrating three Japanese soldiers, when there are no Japanese actors in the cast as far as I am aware, speaks to the limitations of a good many writers; and the continued acceptability of using the “other” as disposable props in an otherwise well-fleshed out story.
The cast includes several black characters; (Raymond Goodall, an amazing dancer, and Marc Prince, gruff and hilarious as the ball-busting Sarge) who probably weren’t included in the original script, yet were thankfully added by an inclusive casting director to reflect the diverse realities of the American military that are regularly omitted in modern depictions. While watching the show, the glaring omission of the slurs and discrimination that the black characters did face, alongside the discrimination of the Japanese lay thick with the irony of the casual erasure derived from artistic convenience. When the cast sings a great song about “Your Squad Being Your Squad,” the sanitized camaraderie rings false for me, as it drives home the point that people of color will never truly be part of the “squad,” neither during WWII, nor today. Even in new theater works, people of color are always on the outside looking into white-centered stories.
Josh: Some version of this kind of erasure happens in about 80 percent of shows sadly, no matter how well-intentioned. Hopefully the next generation’s commitment to intersectionality brings dramatic improvements in writing. Otherwise, overall from the explosively wonderful opening number, to the closing song, this musical has more bounce than a kangaroo.
Sheri: Treat yourself and go see Yank! A WWII Love Story immediately!
Pride Films & Plays presents “YANK! A WWI Love Story” through March 18 The Broadway, Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Paul Goyette.