Allegiance Review: 'Allegiance – A New American Musical'
Millions know television and film actor George Takei as Mr.Sulu in the original Star Trek series. Less well known is that, as a boy, Takei was one of some 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent uprooted from their homes on the West Coast of the United States and banished for much of World War II to barbed-wire internment camps on American soil. About two-thirds of the internees were U.S.citizens. None were ever charged with, let alone found guilty of, any act of espionage or sabotage, even though the government insisted these concerns underlay the egregious policy.
Inspired, in part, by Takei’s own story, the musical Allegiance offers a glimpse of this often ignored chapter of American history through one family’s story of love, sacrifice, and patriotism against a backdrop of war-time hysteria.
That family is the Kimuras. On the cusp of manhood is son Sammy (effervescent Broadway and “Glee” star Telly Leung; with a commanding performance by Takei taking over the role of Sam as a senior citizen), unmarried daughter Kei (Lea Salonga, whose exquisite voice earned her a Tony Award for Miss Saigon) fills the nurturing void left by their mother’s death. Their emotionally distant Japanese immigrant father Tatsuo (Paul Nakauchi, himself the son of camp survivors), and Takei, doing double duty on stage, as the wise and adored grandfather Ojii-San.
The story begins in December 2001, with elderly Sam, in his U.S. Army uniform, reluctantly preparing to be put on public display during a Pearl Harbor Day parade. A caller at the door brings news the death of his sister, Kei, with whom Sam was once inseparable but inexplicably has not spoken to in 60 years.
Sam impatiently paws through a box of momentos left by the stranger, extracting a battered baseball he thoughtfully beholds a long moment. Teenage Sammy enters from offstage, one hands a toss from Sam, and the audience is transported to the 1941 Kimura artichoke farm, in Salinas, Calif. The fields are productive with lucurative produce orders coming in. Sammy, who has just been elected high school class president, sings “Going Places” which describes the limitless opportunities he envisions before him as a patriotic young American who dreams of a future in politics.
Then comes the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Huddled around a radio at the kitchen table, the family listens to FDR’s “a date which will live in infamy” address as it cuts through the airwaves and, with the declaration of war, tears their lives apart.
Those of Japanese descent are ordered to report to authorities. The farm is sold for pennies on the dollar, and possessions reduced to only what they can carry. Thousands are hastily and harshly herded onto trains bound for who knows where. The ensemble sings the moving “Gaman,” whose title derives from the Japanese word for endurance with dignity.
Their new “home” is Heart Mountain Internment Camp, in Wyoming. The conditions are appalling and there’s the ever present, scornful eye of armed guards watching their every move, together with the unseen eye of Mike Masaoka, the controversial, real-life leader of the Japanese American Citizens League, secretly manipulating the course of events.
One day, a Masaoka-endorsed questionnaire (containing an embedded loyalty oath) lands in camp with the destructive force of a grenade. Many, including Tatsuo, vehemently oppose it and wind up in prison. Kei falls in with a group of camp activists and falls in love with its leader Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee, who gives an out-of-the-ballpark performance). Sammy breaks from the family by signing the oath and enlisting in the all-Nissei (American-born Japanese) 442nd Regiment, which serves with valor (and staggering losses) in the European theater.
The book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione artfully builds to a tragic loss for Sammy followed by old-solider Takei confronting a jaw-dropping betrayal and embracing an unexpected opportunity at reconciliation embodied in the song “Second Chances.” Do not attend a performance without a handkerchief.
Director Stafford Arima propels the action against Donyale Werle’s minimal, yet mesmerizing set design of sliding scrims resembling Japanese shoji screens. Against these screens, Howell Binkley’s lighting and Darrel Maloney’s imaginative projection design convey the audience into Sam’s apartment, to the Kimura farm, aboard lumbering passenger trains, behind camp stockades, on the battle field, and as witness to the A-bomb drop on Hiroshima and its aftermath.
Composer-lyricist Jay Kuo delivers a wide range of musical styles well suited for the production’s Broadway ambitions. The snappy choreography is courtesy of Andrew Palermo. Music supervision, arrangements, and orchestrations are by Lynne Shankel, who has a rollicking good time in the orchestra pit. Spot-on costume design by Alejo Vietti underscores that, prior to their incarceration, Japanese American wore the same stylish, tailored clothing as any other American of the era.
George Takei and his family spent a total of four years in internment camps in Arkansas and northern California. This is the same number of years it took to bring Allegiance to the stage. The achievement registered on Takei’s face as pure, unbridled joy as the opening-night audience bathed the cast in curtain-call adulation.