Allegiance Review: Allegiance – A New American Musical at The Old Globe
Allegiance – A New American Musical is not George Takei’s story, but Mr. Takei was among the 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent who were held in internment camps during World War II. Now, Mr. Takei, who will forever be also known as “Star Trek’s” Sulu, is starring at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in a lush and romantic musical version of a family’s story set against a shameful time in U. S. history.
The family in question is the Kimura family, artichoke farmers in California’s Salinas Valley. They are by all accounts successful, and son Sammy (Telly Leung) has just been elected president of his high school class. Daughter Kei (Lea Salonga) manages the household, as her mother died in childbirth; she worries about becoming an old maid. Father Tatsuo (Paul Nakauchi) works at his business with an immigrant’s fervor and doesn’t seem to notice the accomplishments of his American-born children. Grandfather Ojii-san (Mr. Takei) doesn’t speak much English, but he dispenses wisdom with good humor despite these barriers.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brings orders for the Kimuras to sell their home and business and report with limited possessions to be interned at Heart Mountain, in Wyoming. There they live in crowded conditions with no privacy. Ever the striver, Sammy becomes enamored with Mike Masaoka (Paolo Montalban), who, as spokesperson for the Japanese American Citizens League, represents the interests of those of Japanese descent to the Federal government. Masaoka, the show’s only nonfictional character, fought for civil rights for Japanese Americans, but he was also keenly aware that Japanese loyalty to the U. S. was under question.
In the same manner that Booker T. Washington had advised former slaves to “cast down your bucket where you are,” Masaoka advises interned Japanese Americans to endure their hardships. He endorses a survey where internees can certify their loyalty, but his plan backfires when the purpose of these loyalty questions is misunderstood and many answer counter to how he intended. Tatsuo is one of the “disloyal” responders, and he is punished by being shipped to another internment camp and placed in solitary confinement.
Masaoka eventually is able to lobby successfully for the formation of two military units where Japanese Americans could serve, and Sammy is quick to volunteer. These units existed historically and were often sent on missions where they were outnumbered, and casualties were high.
Despite the conditions, a social life flourishes in the camps. Sammy becomes attracted to Hannah Campbell (Allie Trimm), a Red Cross volunteer, while Kei dates Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee), another internee. Trouble arises, however, when Frankie disagrees with Sammy over the value of Mike Masaoka’s advice, and eventually Frankie refuses to fight, even when a draft is instituted for young men in the camps. Kei eventually has to choose between Sammy and Frankie, as the two become estranged.
Book writers Marc Acito, Jay Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione tell this sweeping story by focusing on the Kimura family and the infatuations that Sammy and Kei develop. They also include a clever framing device where Mr. Takei portrays Sammy as an old man. This device allows Mr. Takei to appear as the focus of the story at both the beginning and the end of the show, while otherwise receding into a secondary role. Of course, the problem with telling the story in flashback is that the audience already knows at least some of the ending, but the writers keep things interesting by saving some surprises for the last few moments.
The writers also do a good job of being true to the history they are fictionalizing (and, for additional information on the internments, see this Smithsonian Institute website. The Old Globe’s production includes a museum exhibit on site, giving audiences an up-close look at many elements featured in the show).
Mr. Kuo has composed a score that is sometimes serviceable, sometimes much more so. Outside of the framing device, the structure of the show is quite traditional, allowing for an early “I want” song (“Going Places”), a rousing first act finale (“My Time Now”), a beautiful love duet (“The Mountain’s Heart”) in act two, and even an 11 o’clock number of sorts. Mr. Kuo writes using an easily followed harmonic structure, and he draws from the style of popular music of the period, including echoing melodies of well-known Japanese songs.
The Old Globe has given Allegiance a Broadway-level production. Stafford Arima’s fluid direction, along with Donyale Werle’s open scenic design, Darrel Maloney’s projection design, and Howell Binkley’s lighting design allow for the many shifts in scene that the story requires. Jonathan Deans’ sound design and the playing of a 12-piece orchestra conducted by Music Director Laura Bergquist helped the cast to come through entirely in balance. Andrew Palermo’s choreography seemed to arise organically from the scenes themselves.
Three of the principals give fine performances, a fourth is problematic, and a fifth surprises with an exceptional one. Mr. Takei seems more comfortable playing the wise and witty grandfather (who has all of the best laugh lines) than the disappointed and bitter older Sammy. Ms. Salonga’s vocal and interpretive ability ably illustrates why she is a Tony recipient. Mr. Leung radiates youthful energy and idealism as Sammy.
The problematic performance is Mr. Montalban’s. As Masaoka and his actions proved to be controversial within the Japanese American community, this character is the trickiest to portray. Mr. Montalban catches the obsequiousness of Masaoka’s rhetoric but doesn’t always reveal his charisma.
The exceptional performance comes from Mr. Lee, as Frankie. From the moment he first appears, Mr. Lee establishes himself as a force to be reckoned with, and his duets with Ms. Salonga are the musical highlights of the evening.
There has been much talk of a Broadway transfer for Allegiance, and on opening night the production seemed pretty close to being ready to go. My concern for its success would be how New York audiences might resonate with what is essentially a West Coast story. San Diego audiences have at least some familiarity with the internment and its aftermath, but such understanding may well be local.