Allegiance Review: 'Allegiance' an affecting success. Old Globe's smart, soulful, world-premiere musical shines.
It’s a phrase that sounds dangerously un-jaded, even hopelessly hopeful, and after seeing the sublime new musical “Allegiance” you just might be moved to embrace it: “From the past / we can learn at last.”
That’s a lyric from “Second Chances,” a song that goes a long way toward embodying what makes this show, now receiving its world-premiere production at the Old Globe Theatre, such a stirring and worthwhile work.
The words refer to a family reconciliation, yet they also can’t help but engage with the seismic historical trauma at the core of the musical’s story: Our nation’s decision to round up Japanese-Americans and confine them to prison camps at the start of World War II.
It is, to say the least, a sobering subject for a musical. But “Allegiance,” inspired by the childhood experiences of cast member and driving force George Takei (of “Star Trek” fame), finds just the right balance of lyricism, heartbreak, yearning and, yes, humor.
Most impressive of all, this original work manages to thread together myriad themes — of family strife, politics, patriotism, racial prejudice — into a beautifully unified exploration of what it means to be true to something. It’s not just about allegiance to one’s country, but also to a cause, and to loved ones, and ultimately to one’s self.
In that way, “Allegiance” is a little like the intricate origami flower that, in one of the show’s funnier moments, an internee named Kei (Lea Salonga) places in her hair. Made from one of the loyalty questionnaires forced on the internees, it’s a thing of beauty fashioned from an object of bitter division. That sense of irony and hard-won redemption is typical not just of the musical’s story (by Jay Kuo, Lorenzo Thione and Marc Acito) but of composer Kuo’s songs, too.
One example, “Sacrifice,” is simultaneously a lament by Japanese-Americans who’ve been stripped of their possessions, and a kind of rallying cry by Mike Masaoka (Paolo Montalban), a polarizing figure in real life who looms large in “Allegiance” as the man who urges internees’ total cooperation with the government.
“My Time,” at first a soulful affirmation of self-assurance by the show’s young central character, Sammy (Telly Leung), winds up reprised as a kind of requiem for drafted Japanese-American soldiers whose time to meet their maker has arrived.
Throughout director Stafford Arima’s gracefully staged production, music supervisor/arranger Lynne Shankel’s gorgeous orchestrations (some of the most satisfying I’ve heard in a musical here) inspire an excellent 12-piece orchestra to invest the songs with tons of period personality and east-meets-west textures, right down to the most subtle underscoring.
It helps to have a knockout singer the likes of Salonga (a Tony-winner from “Miss Saigon”) in your cast. She turns the soaring “Higher” into a vocal showcase, and teams well with Broadway and “Glee” star Leung, whose kinetic presence gives the show plenty of spark.
They lead a cast that includes such standouts as the Broadway-seasoned Allie Trimm of Escondido, who plays the Quaker nurse (and Sammy’s budding love interest), Hannah; Paul Nakauchi as Sammy’s dad, Tatsuo; and Michael K. Lee as the principled draft resister Frankie.
And, of course, Takei, who portrays both Sammy’s grandfather at the Heart Mountain internment camp and, in scenes that bookend the saga, a much older version of Sam himself. His performance is by turns raw and wry (in one scene, Takei devotees might even recognize shades of the highly viral “happy dance” the actor performed after the huge success of an online fundraiser for “Allegiance”).
The story centers on the tension between those like Sammy, who becomes a Masaoka disciple and volunteers for the now-legendary 442nd Regimental Combat Unit to prove his loyalty; and internees such as Frankie, who believe their duty as Americans is to speak out against loss of liberty.
While the history cuts close to home for Takei, whose own family was interned and struggled with such questions, it also points the way to debates that are still very much with us today.
The show, graced by Donyale Werle’s arresting design scheme of sliding screens (combined with Darrel Maloney’s fine projections), still could use a bit of polish here and there. Its authority figures can feel like oafish cartoons (although the San Diego actors Geno Carr, Brandon Joel Maier and Kürt Norby distinguish themselves in roles as guards and other characters), and its dramatic tension sags for a time in Act 2.
But “Second Chances”? With luck, “Allegiance” may well find those on Broadway.