Allegiance Review: 'Allegiance' is moving, thought-provoking story of patriotism, loss
SAN DIEGO – In the publicity photos for “Allegiance —- A New American Musical,” it appears to be the story of a Japanese-American family struggling to hold itself together in an internment camp during World War II.
But the moving and thought-provoking musical that made its world premiere at the Old Globe Theatre Wednesday night is far more complex and political than that. The controversial, real-life Japanese-American leader Mike Masaoka —- who was instrumental in helping the government run the camps, keep prisoners in order and send internees into battle in Europe —- haunts virtually every scene of this well-crafted, highly melodic tale by composer/lyricist Jay Kuo and bookwriters Marc Acito, Kuo and Lorenzo Thione.
As new musicals go, “Allegiance” is in impressively polished shape, with a multilayered, clearly plotted, well-paced book. And Kuo’s score is refreshingly different, with unusual and sweeping, Asian-inspired melodies, all lushly orchestrated and arranged by Lynne Shankel. Director Stafford Arima —- who brought another World War II musical to the Globe a few years ago, “Ace” —- brings a more seasoned, subtle hand to this piece, allowing the story’s emotional arc to build gradually for a shattering payoff in the second act. In other words, bring your Kleenex, you’re going to need it.
Tony-winner Lea Salonga, who has one of the best voices I’ve heard onstage, doesn’t disappoint with some stunning solos, but it’s George Takei (whose own story as a child internee inspired the musical) who gives the story its heart and soul. The musical is told as a fictional memory tale, with Takei as an elderly WWII veteran looking back on his painful youth in the camp, and the raw, honest grief that wells up within him in the show’s closing scene is almost too hard to watch.
“Allegiance” is the story of the Kimuras, a Japanese-American family who have been farming artichokes in Salinas for 20 years when Pearl Harbor is bombed in December 1941. Son Sammy (who Telly Leung plays as a teen and Takei plays as an old man) is a patriotic young American who dreams of a future in politics. Sammy’s older, 30ish sister Kei (Salonga) is a maternal figure, filling the void left by their mother’s death. Their Japanese immigrant father Tatsuo (a noble Paul Nakauchi) is stoic and tradition-bound. And their grandfather Ojii-San (Takei, as well) is warm, loving and funny.
The action moves quickly, with the family forced to sell their farm for a fraction of its value and subjected to racist taunts before they’re whisked off by train to Heart Mountain Internment Camp in Wyoming. The touching ensemble number “Gaman” (Japanese for “endurance with dignity”) encapsulates how the internees carried themselves with quiet grace to the camps —- always under the watchful eye of Masaoka, a bright, ambitious (and increasingly confident) young leader for the Japanese American Citizens League.
Once they arrive, Sammy falls for the Quaker nursing volunteer Hannah Campbell (a mixed-race courtship then forbidden by law), organizes a camp baseball team and is hand-picked by Masaoka to be a camp leader. Father Tatsuo disapproves of his son’s patriotism to a country that would imprison its own citizens, but Kei watches her brother’s rise with pride and awe in the stirring solo “Higher.”
But fractures appear. Internees are forced to fill out a Masaoka-endorsed questionnaire with a two-question loyalty oath. Those who signed “no” to the oath (called the “No Nos”) are imprisoned under harsh conditions, including Tatsuo and Frankie Suzuki, a young L.A.-born draft resister who Kei meets and falls in love with at the camp. Sammy signs the oath and later enlists to serve in the all-Nissei (American-born Japanese), Masaoka-led 442nd Regiment, which served with valor (and shockingly high losses) in Europe during the war’s final years.
The plot takes a few surprise twists I won’t reveal here, except to say a confrontation splits the family for more than 60 years and Masaoka (played with earnest fervor by Paolo Montalban) has much to do with it. Even today, Masaoka continues to split the Japanese-American community. His actions during the war have been harshly criticized, but his post-war efforts to win government reparations for internees have been praised. The musical’s bookwriters don’t paint him as a hero or villain. The audience is left to draw its own conclusions from Masaoka’s own words, many of them taken directly from his writing and government and investigative reports.
The musical seems best in its smaller moments, particularly the sweet interactions between Takei and Salonga, who is such a natural, likable actress, and Salonga and Yeung, who plays Sammy with a youthful, wiry intensity. Some of the bigger ensemble numbers feel flat. The show-opener “Going Places” fails to inspire. “Better Americans” feels and looks too similar to the flag-waving technicolor “The American Dream” from “Miss Saigon.” And the sung family argument “Betrayed’ is clunky and awkward. Btu a winner is the lively “Paradise,” a cynical look at patriotism sung by the rebel Frankie (played with cocky-smart energy by Michael K. Lee).
The physical production has some big-wow moments. Andrew Palermo’s Asian-inspired fight choreography in “Go For Broke” is fresh and surprising. Darrel Maloney’s projections — combined with Howell Binkley’s haunting lighting design —- are often stunning, particularly in the powerful Hiroshima scene, where imagery of the A-bomb glides silently (and subtly) over the bodies of actors while a large photograph of the flattened city seems to melt behind them like a frame of movie film exposed to a flame.
Donyale Werle’s scenic design is deceptively simple, a set of hand-designed shoji screens masterfully choreographed by Arima in an ever-shifting myriad of configurations.
Several well-known local actors are featured in the cast, most notably Escondido native Allie Trimm in a well-sung, sweet performance as Hannah, Sammy’s young love. Also in the ensemble are locals Geno Carr, Kurt Norby, Brandon Joel Maier and Jill Townsend.
The musical runs two hours, 30 minutes, with intermission. Because of its political themes, small children won’t really understand much of the story, but I hope a lot of high school and college students attend performances of “Allegiance.” It’s a living history lesson about one of the most shameful chapters in American history and it’s well-told this fall at The Old Globe.