San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre (“The Nation’s 3rd Oldest LGBT Theatre”) has scored a major (and I mean MAJOR) coup in obtaining the rights to present the West Coast Premiere of Yank!, a major hit (and audience award winner) at 2005’s New York Musical Theatre Festival.  In fact, Diversionary is only the second theater company in the U.S. to stage Yank! since the Festival, and a WOW! of a production it is, thanks a terrific cast, staging by the original New York director Igor Goldin, and the hands-on presence of book and lyrics writer David Zellnik and composer Joseph Zellnik.


“Some WWII buddy stories didn’t make it into the history books,” proclaim Yank!’s publicity materials, and Yank! tells of one of them, the powerful and passionate love story which ignites when Midwestern draftee Stu and fellow private Mitch realize that they have more than their uniforms and Army haircuts in common.

“A few weeks back, I found an old old diary at a junk shop,” a young man in a baseball cap and sweatshirt tells us at lights up. “On the opening page of the journal, in very neat handwriting, ‘No matter what I do, I keep remembering you.’”  As the young man listens to a CD he found of “Remembering You,” we see the romantic ballad performed live by a WWII serviceman, the young man morphs into his 1940s counterpart, Stu, and the vocalist turns out to be none other than the man who turned Stu’s world around and changed his life forever.

The show’s catchy title song introduces us to Stu’s fellow draftees: brutish country hick Tennessee, affable Italian-American Rotelli, chubby good-natured Polack Czechowski, and others. Everyone but Stu, it seems, has left a sweetheart behind, and this is not the only thing which makes Stu feel different. There’s also the way he reacts when Mitch plops down behind him, wraps his arms around him, and gives Stu hands-on instruction in the proper way to polish shoes. 

If Stu is worried about the feelings Mitch awakes in him, it’s not without reason. Early on in basic training, Company C’s drill instructor announces the arrest of 12 homosexuals at Camp Pendleton. “There will be no degradation in the 89th!” he orders.  Stu’s fellow soldiers seem already to have figured out that there’s a queer one in their midst.  Tennessee dubs him Light Loafers, a name which sticks … and terrifies Stu.

Equally terrifying, but exhilarating at the same time, are the emotions that Mitch inspires in him. “How about if I call you ‘Sweetheart,’” suggests Mitch, “and you call me ‘Hollywood’ cause I’m just that handsome.” Alone in their bunk one night, Stu dares to ask Mitch for a kiss, and though Mitch assents, and responds with his own lips, it’s Mitch, not Stu, who ends up running, though not forever.

Fortunately for Stu, a queer fellow named Artie appears on the scene, a reporter for the real-life Army magazine Yank (“the serviceman’s journal”). Artie invites Stu to join him as photographer, a job which provides an easy way to avoid being sent to the front. In the toe-tapping “Click,” Artie reveals the secret methods which gays of the era used to sniff each other out.  Especially informative are washroom tips for the local YMCA.  “Here’s a handsome fellow, part of our crew.  Tap your footsie, see if he taps too. Say your hands touch over the sink.  Ask him if he’s feeling pink. Say he’s tall and strong and swarthy. Ask if he’s a friend of Dorothy.  Now you got it kid!”

An affair with promiscuous Artie is not really Stu’s thing, however. He pines for Mitch, and when, ten months later, he runs into him again, Stu finds Mitch hardened, heavy drinking, and ice-cold.  The power of true love is stronger than Mitch’s fear of his real self, though, and soon our two heroes are planning a life together in a house in Mitch’s home town, just “a couple of regular guys” who happen to have “found each other in the war.”  “I’ll even add a patio for a sexy ex-GI I know,” croons Mitch. “Picture the two of us on some lazy day, when ‘Bombs Away!’ is just a game we play.”

Will Stu and Mitch (and their love) survive the war? Will they be found out by an Army always on the lookout for “perverts?” Will they be able to live out their dreams in a world in which two men living together is simply not done?

These are, as they say, questions which will be answered to those fortunate enough to find themselves at the Diversionary over the next month, enveloped in the world of Yank!, one of the most moving stories of two men in love ever depicted on stage … and a sensational new musical to boot. 

Joseph Zellnik’s music brings back the sounds of the 1940s with romantic ballads like “Blue Twilight,” catchy up-tempo numbers like “Saddest Gal What Am” (she lost her man to Uncle Sam), production number-ready ditties like “Your Squad Is Your Squad,” and what is sure to become a gay anthem and cabaret favorite, “Just True,” with these amazing lyrics by David Zellnik:

“What we have is special.  What we are is not. We’re two of thousands, hundreds of thousands. I’m surprised as you.  It isn’t something good, or bad, just true.  No going back, not now. Too many know to go back and hide. Hundreds of thousands who felt lost before, have found each other in the war. Now we’re wise.  The freaks are us, us regular guys. You can’t unlearn what you know is true. I’m glad they see us.  If they can see us, means that we can too.  And that’s just true.  Just true.”


Director Goldin has brought out the best in his cast of non-Equity soldiers, whose work here must surely rival that of the New York originals.

In a performance which reveals all of Mitch’s contradictions and conflicts, Tom Doyle has the voice of a 1940s crooner and the handsome “Average Joe” good looks that could easily captivate a fresh-faced lad like Stu.  As Artie, Eric Dowdy is a crackerjack song and dance man in the Fred Astaire-Gene Kelly tradition. Equity guest artist Amy Biedel has a comic ball playing all the women in these soldiers’ lives, sings up a storm to boot, and gets to play nurse to a dying soldier in a hilarious Hollywood movie spoof.

The men of Company C do uniformly (no pun intended) fine work: Jacob Caltrider (Swenson/Speedy), Rocky Deharo (Rotelli), Juston Harlin (Czechowski), and Sven Salumaa (Professor), with a special nod to Zachary Bryant’s dangerous hick Tennessee.

There’s also the camp-o-licious trio of Tony Houck, Trevor Peringer, and John Whitley as Melanie, India, and Scarlett, steno pool GI’s who camouflage their drag personas behind a slew of office profanities, and end up “Stuck In A Cell” wearing Army undershirts and floor-length petticoats.  (You have to be there.) Whitley also doubles believably as the tough-nosed Sarge.

Saving best for last, in the pivotal role of Stu is the amazing Tom Zohar, a discovery for me but one of the busiest young actors south of the OC.  The boyishly good looking Zohar and Stu are a perfect fit, and Zohar brings to it passionate commitment, the voice of an angel, and a fine set of tap-dancing feet.

Yank! features some infectious choreography by Jeffry Denman (Artie in the New York original), recreated here by director Goldin, including a calisthenics/basic training based “Yank!”   “Your Squad Is Your Squad” is especially inventive (and saucy), as the entire company goes gay, at least until the final bars of the song, and a limp-wristed salute en masse.

The original’s mini-orchestra has been scaled down to piano and percussion here, with no harm done. Musical director Amy Dalton is faultless on keyboard, with an equally fine Nathan Hubbard backing her. Scenic and sound design (Goldin again!) are likewise first rate, a bunch of khaki panels easily maneuvered to create various locales on the Diversionary’s wide stage. Jennifer Brawn Gittings has designed a bevy of gowns for Biedel. (Gittings is also credited with the excellent San Diego men’s costumes, the New York originals having been designed by Tricia Barsamian.) The rest of the Diversionary tech team deserves highest marks as well: Mia Bane Jacobs for lighting, David Medina for properties, and Missy Bradstreet for wigs.

As Yank! comes to a close, we return to the present, to Zohar reading the last entry in Stu’s diary and wondering “if I could be brave like he was. He shows me the right way to love, freely, with no time to waste.”

I saw Yank! with a friend who attends nearly as much theater as I do and who has often told weepy-eyed me that he can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he has cried in the theater. Guess who was next to me wiping tears at the end of Yank!  

As there’ll likely be an off-Broadway run before an L.A. theater gets its shot at Yank!, a trip down south to the Diversionary should prove well worth the cost of gas for anyone who truly loves musical theater.  If San Diego were even a smidgen closer, I’d be back to see Yank! again and again.  

Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd., San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
July 20, 2008

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