An ironic, knowing laugh rippled through the audience Thursday night as the immensely engaging musical “Yank! A WW II Love Story,” received its Chicago premiere by Pride Films and Plays. And that laughter instantly suggested the long, painful history of homosexuals in the U.S. military.

The moment occurs when two of the story’s principal characters, who engage in a long and difficult relationship during their service in World War II, dream about cohabiting once they are back home. It is shortly after the war, in the mid 1940s, and one of the men consoles his lover by saying that things will get better in a few years. Of course things did not get officially better until  2010 — after decades of constantly fluctuating policies and, finally, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

‘YANK! A WW II LOVE STORY’
Highly recommended
When: Through Feb. 18
Where: Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway
Tickets: $40 reserved; $30 general admission
Info: www.pridefilmsandplays.com
Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission

Written by brothers Joseph Zellnik (music) and David Zellnik (book and lyrics), “Yank!” tells the story of the love affair that develops between the nerdy, adolescent, virginal Stu (Matthew Huston), a smart but bumbling Midwestern kid who keeps a journal, and the handsome, kind-hearted but deeply sexually conflicted Mitch (William Dwyer), who meet in 1943, when both are part of the same squad undergoing basic training at Fort Bliss, Texas.

Mitch initially helps Stu through basic training in the manner of a protective older brother, but along the way the two confess their love for each other — a mostly liberating thing for Stu, but one that terrifies the deeply uneasy Mitch. Meanwhile, Stu meets Artie (John Marshall Jr.), a sassy, confident, gay photographer who gets him a job working with him as a reporter for the Army’s popular weekly magazine, Yank (“a magazine by and about servicemen”). In the process, he initiates him into gay life and its underground in the Armed Services, highlighted by a very funny and campy send-up of soldiers enacting “Gone With the Wind.”

Matthew Huston (left) and John Marshall Jr. in “Yank! A WWII Love Story!” | PAUL GOYETTE

The journalistic assignment at Yank also enables Stu to remain beyond the front line when his squad is shipped off to the South Pacific, although ultimately he also will see (and participate in) all the horrors of war. And while Stu and Artie become sexual partners, Stu’s heart belongs to Mitch.

Before it’s all over Stu will be compromised and cruelly interrogated after his journal is submitted to the authorities. But he also, most crucially, will become a man of grit, heart and substance.

Strongly directed by David Zak, the show’s score riffs easily and convincingly on the Swing Era style, with the masterful music director/keyboardist Robert Ollis and his sensational band making the sort of joyful noise you’d expect to hear in a USO canteen. There also is terrific tap and swing choreography of the 1940s period courtesy of Jenna Schoppe (and executed especially brilliantly in a duet performed by Marshall and Huston).

Molly LeCaptain (with a power voice that can move easily from jazz to operetta-like heights) is superb playing all the women’s roles – from a popular bandstand singer of the era, to the girlfriends on the home front, to the career woman who serves as assistant to General Douglas MacArthur and knows exactly how to negotiate her way in the military even though she is a lesbian.

While the show tries to suggest both the straight and gay aspects of the Army, there are moments when you might begin to believe the predominant population of the Army is gay rather than straight, but that is bound to happen given its focus on a particular issue. And by the end, the high cost of war on everyone and everything is ideally rendered.

First staged in 2010 by New York’s York Theatre Company (with talk of a Broadway transfer to be directed by David Cromer that never materialized),  “Yank!” has already been staged on three continents, with a production on London’s West End this past summer. Its Chicago edition is a worthy addition to the roster.

John Marshall Jr. (from left) Molly LeCaptain, Matthew Huston in “Yank! A WWII Love Story!” | PAUL GOYETTE