Allegiance Review: George Takei's Musical on Japanese Internment Worthy of Allegiance

Sep 20, 2012

Allegiance Review: George Takei’s Musical on Japanese Internment Worthy of Allegiance

"Allegiance" is not only done well, it's an unqualified triumph. Its power lies in its humanity - and in the very contradictions that made me wonder, as I walked into the auditorium, "Can this work?" Rest assured, it does.

I must admit, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I settled into my seat for Allegiance, a musical set largely in a Japanese internment camp.

Yes, you read that right: a musical set largely in a Japanese internment camp. How does one reconcile a story of stark oppression with a genre whose very definition is rooted in unbounded joy and unbridled hope of musical expression? When we think “musical,” we envision Julie Andrews twirling through the Swiss Alps, proclaiming that the hills are alive! Yet we tend to forget that this signature moment is juxtaposed against the backdrop of Hitler’s ruthless campaign to subjugate Europe just before the outbreak of World War II.

In a sense, “Allegiance” could be seen as a sequel of sorts to this Broadway masterpiece, set a few short years later and half a world away, but driven by some of the same events – and many of the same human failings. Stereotyping. Bigotry. Fear.

George Takei, who spent part of his childhood in one of the many internment camps dotting the western United States, explained it this way in the official program: “Musical theater is a powerful medium for moving an audience, both through their minds and their emotions, to experience the anguish, heartbreak, joy and triumphs of a people.”

I would add this qualification: when it’s done well.

Manzanar relocation center, California, 1943.

Allegiance is not only done well, it’s an unqualified triumph. Destined to follow The Sound of Music to Broadway, it’s worth mentioning in the same breath as that timeless classic and, in some ways, it’s superior. The score is excellent, and while no individual selection quite rises to the level of signature selections from The Sound of Music or Oklahoma, for example, it’s consistently strong and moving. And the story itself rises to the level of these classics… and beyond. This is, quite simply, one of the most powerfully told stories I’ve ever witnessed in more than two decades of attending musical theater productions.

Its power lies in its humanity – and in the very contradictions that made me wonder, as I walked into the auditorium, “Can this work?”

Rest assured, it does.

Even the one-word title, Allegiance, is layered with many layers of meaning that expose its humanity. The opening scene re-enacts the Pledge of Allegiance, but this is merely the symbolic gateway into a story that examines the human concept of allegiance on many different levels. The question asked by those who ran the internment camps was basic: “Does your allegiance lie with the United States or Japan?” But the real, human questions went far deeper, and these are the questions Allegiance dares to explore.

Does your allegiance lie to old traditions or to a new hope or something better? What happens when you fall in love with someone whose beliefs – whose core principles – run counter to your own? What does it take to prove your allegiance, and how far should you go to do so? Should it even be necessary? The interplay between characters of different generations, different ethnic backgrounds and conflicting convictions provides a level of complexity that mirrors that of humanity itself, and this is where Allegiance truly triumphs.

It would have been easy to write a two-dimensional story preaching the injustices of the internment with the help of cardboard cutout heroes and villains. But Allegiance disdains this approach for a far more nuanced script that manages to convey horror of those injustices with a depth and impact that no preaching could hope to match. This isn’t merely a lesson in history, but first and foremost an experience of humanity – and an irresistible invitation to empathy. It’s unimaginable that anyone could attend this play and leave without asking, “What would I do in this situation?”

Rounded up and removed from their homes with only what belongings they could carry, the characters in Allegiance answer this question in profoundly different ways. The young, ambitious Sammy Kimura (Telly Leung) demands the opportunity to prove his loyalty to the United States by enlisting and fighting in the war. Frankie Suzuki chooses instead to fight the injustice of the internment itself, vowing to “Resist” – the title of one of the plays more rousing and highly choreographed numbers.

Takei told me afterward that all the characters in the play were fictional, with the exception of Mike Masaoka (Paolo Montalban), who served as the head of the Japanese American Citizens League during the war. Even Masaoka, whose zealous patriotism reinforced the oppressive U.S. policy toward Japanese-American internees, is not a two-dimensional character. On the one hand, he is depicted as willing to send a family member on a virtual suicide mission in a misguided attempt to demonstrate loyalty; on the other, he argued when the war was over that internees deserved compensation for their treatment. 

But while the internment is the overarching theme of the Allegiance, the play truly soars by transcending its setting to examine such universal human themes as hope, abandonment, loyalty, love, grief and disillusionment. Family patriarch Ojii-San (Takei) relishes the challenge of planting a garden in the hard, unforgiving soil of the camp. Kei Kimura (Lea Salonga) finds herself sacrificing her own dreams in order to raise her younger brother after her mother’s death. She grapples with feelings of abandonment, and with the seeming futility of holding her family together in the face of forces bent on tearing them apart.

Salonga, who lent her singing voice to Disney’s animated characters of Fa Mulan in Mulan and Princess Jasmine in Aladdin, provides the vocal highlight of Allegiance. Her voice was consistently note-perfect and stunningly strong, and her duet with Allie Trimm – who plays the part of Hannah Campbell – was harmonized so flawlessly that it almost seemed like a stereo presentation.

Another powerful voice belongs to Paul Nakauchi, who portrays Kei’s and Sammy’s father, Tatsuo Kimura. He has previously played the part of the king of Siam in the Broadway revival of The King and I, and it’s easy to hear why he was well-suited to that role. If anything, he singing presence is underutilized here. That’s a compliment to Nakauchi, not a criticism of the play.

Indeed, it was hard to find much wrong with the play at all. Apart from a brief sound glitch at the beginning of Act II, the show seemed to go off without a hitch. This is particularly impressive considering that Saturday’s performance was just the second, a night after its opening. Afterward, as the audience filed out, perhaps twenty writers stayed in the theater to discuss how they might tweak the script before its Broadway debut. It’s difficult to find much room for improvement.

Takei told me afterward about one significant change that had already been made. Initially, Takei played just one character – the older version of Sammy – and appeared only at the beginning and the end of the script. The writers, happily, gave him a far greater presence by creating the character of the grandfather, Ojii-San, whose presence leavens the script with a sense of wisdom that enriches it and a touch of humor that adds an important dimension. When Takei returns as the elder Sammy in the final scene, he commands the stage with an emotional performance that brings Allegiance to a fitting conclusion.

This is, when all is said and done, Takei’s baby. His immensely popular Facebook site? It was created, he told me, for the purpose of spreading the word about Allegiance. Afterward, he asked a group of people who had gathered for autographs and pictures to do the same: spread the word. And it is, indeed, a word well worth spreading.

Takei first came to my attention, as he did with so many others, through his role as helmsman Hikaru Sulu on the original Star Trek series. That series, perhaps more than any other of its time, led the way in breaking down stereotypes and focusing on the indomitable human spirit. Allegiance takes that message several steps further, into the 21st century. By taking us back to a dark chapter in our past, it has shown us the way to a shining future.

I can’t help but think that Gene Roddenberry, whose vision brought Star Trek to life, would have not only applauded Allegiance, but would have – with the rest of the audience Saturday night – accorded it a standing ovation.

And a wish that, on Broadway, it will live long and prosper.