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Phil Willmott

Review: YANK! at the Charing Cross Theatre

Yank! It's great that London audiences, including me, are finally getting a chance to see Yank! the American musical by composer Joseph Zellnik with book and lyrics by his brother David. New Yorkers have been raving about it to me for years.

The revival currently playing at the Charring Cross Theatre, fast becoming the venue for quality and innovative musical theatre under the Artistic Direction of Thom Southerland, started life at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester. The critics loved it and enterprising producer Katie Lipson has lead efforts to bring it to London.

As I reported here recently the promotion has been remarkably coy about the fact that it's a gay love story, which is ironic because it's about two men forced to keep their love a secret in the U.S. Army during WWll. "Yank" was the slang term for an unranked soldier and also the name of a newspaper produced to entertain them.

Stu, played by Scott Hunter, first claps eyes on Mitch, played by Andy Coxon, the object of his affection, when they're both new army recruits. Over the course of the show they ride the kind of emotional rollercoaster, of sweeping love, exhilaration, passion and heartbreak you'd expect from the melodramatic setting of the war in the Pacific.

The authors have purposely set out to write like their heroes Rodgers and Hammerstein who of course gave us the classic musical South Pacific. But this is more than just pastiche, it's as if the newbies are channeling the maestros with their luscious ballades and infectiously enjoyable up beat numbers.

You hear the influence of Richard Rodger's earlier collaborator too, the witheringly witty lyricist Lorenz Hart, who's sassy, sophisticated penmanship also conveyed loneliness and despair. The piece is a potent reminder, as we celebrate gay pride, of quite how difficult life was for men who dared to love other men in the first half of the last century.

If that sounds like high praise for the writing the production too is quite simply superb. Director James Baker and designer Victoria Hinton stage everything with panache, overcoming budget limitations to present a string of beautiful moments. With praise also due for a perfect sound design by Chris Bogg, gorgeous lighting by Aaron J. Dootson and a lush sounding band tightly musically directed by James Cleve.

The expression "triple threat" meaning an actor who can sing, dance and act equally well is too often bandied about and applied, more in hope than judgement. But this cast is the real deal. The three leads, Hunter, Coxon and Sarah Louise-Young as a dizzying array of different women the soldiers meet or imagine, are exceptionally good. The central pair both sing and dance like a dream but what's truly impressive is they also bring extraordinarily nuanced and intelligent acting to the lovers  powerful emotional journey. Coxon's voice is particularly stirring and Louise-Young perfectly captures every retro singing star and style required of her.

I hope Cameron Macintosh's casting team check out Scott Hunter who has the charisma, vulnerability and skill to match the much admired Charlie Stemp, starring in Half a Sixpence around the corner. But I could write in praise of every member of the cast all of whom convince as a ragged bunch of heterosexual soldiers and as gay men with various levels of campiness in the funny and sexy fantasy sequences, beautifully choreographed by Chris Cuming.

Don't let the insufferably hot theatre put you off, this is a collectible musical and production with performances to treasure.

And to those people who say "they don't write musicals like they used to" I say "Yes, they do, look no further than Yank!"

Yank! tickets