If you've already seen Yank!, Diversionary Theatre's current musical and season opener, there's a chance that the first scene of Act II—a hilarious send-up of every wartime drama film ever made—is your most vivid memory. A squeaky-clean young nurse listens to a litany of hopes from a doe-eyed, terminally wounded enlistee; but here, she's all sweetness and light as her patient meets his end, warbling the war effort's praises amid her mind-numbing banter and Pollyanna smile. Lights flicker at the scene, as if an ancient projector's in play. That touch of low camp, and actor Amy Biedel's sensational singing voice, make this the single best part of the show.
Some might say the bit suffers from overkill (what, pray tell, is a combat movie doing in a play set in World War II?). Then again, Yank!, like Broadway's The Producers, is outstanding at exploiting its own excesses—if war is humanity at its worst, both shows say, then overkill will eventually give way to the truths behind its unseen stories. In Yank!'s case, that trait is the vehicle for a piece about gay wartime relationships and the men who forged them, a piece also eager to flash its serious side on a dime. A critical anticlimactic scene seriously overplays its hand; get past that, and you're looking at a West Coast premiere that balances concept and execution pretty damn well.
David Zellnik's script was inspired by real-life histories from World War II servicemembers, with war correspondent Stu (Tom Zohar) at the show's fictional center. He and a private named Mitch (Tom Doyle) fall in love as duty calls; their fellow soldiers catch wise to the relationship over the course of a year, with the brass taking the matter in hand prior to the assault on Iwo Jima. Zellnik keeps things light amid his portrayals of all things masculine and feminine; he makes sure that lots of sexual tendencies dot his script, from those of the down-home, prickly Tennessee (a great Zachary Bryant) to the prissy India (played by Trevor Peringer, who always seems to have a ball with his female-charged roles). The choreography, which director Igor Goldin patterned after that of Broadway song-and-dance man Jeffry Denman, carefully takes typecasting into account, and that's one reason innocuous numbers like “Polishing Shoes” and “Your Squad is Your Squad” are such fun.
It's too bad Zellnik and Goldin couldn't have found a way around Stu's treatment behind closed doors. Near the end, the character is stripped to his civvies and beaten by the MPs at his side; and while that scene may reflect wartime reality, its literal nature does nothing for our imaginations. This is where Corpus Christi, which closed Diversionary's prior season, broke down—the Crucifixion was spoon-fed to us in an anticlimax that took the better part of two acts to set up, and Yank! stumbles in almost identical fashion. And to boot, Zohar's baby face is often at odds with his character.
But whereas Corpus Christi couldn't get over itself, Yank! is highly generous in its attention to detail. Monikers like “Light Loafers” and rueful barbs like “Smell her!” are relatively minor items on paper, but they add up to big-time character traits, and Goldin makes sure his cast behaves accordingly. Music director Amy Dalton lets Joseph Zellnik's 18 tunes evoke the genres of the '40s rather than copy them; her approach is as original as just about everything else in this show. Yank! wins on virtually all counts, putting a fun and human face on gender identity at a time this culture couldn't begin to fathom its import. This review is based on the opening-night performance of July 12. Yank! runs through Aug. 17 at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights.