'Allegiance': Theater Review

Allegiance - H 2015
Courtesy of Matthew Murphy
An important story that hasn't found its ideal form as a musical.

Starring opposite Lea Salonga and Telly Leung, George Takei makes his Broadway debut in this musical inspired by his childhood experiences in a WWII internment camp for Japanese-Americans.

There's a tremendously affecting scene at the end of Allegiance in which George Takei's character, his eyes glistening with tears, reconciles with his conflicted past and finds a promise of comfort that has eluded him for more than 50 years. The knowledge that the story was inspired by Takei's childhood hardships in the Japanese-American "relocation centers" of World War II adds significantly to the emotional impact. But the powerful sentiments involved are too often flattened by the pedestrian lyrics and unmemorable melodies of Jay Kuo's score, making an unconvincing case for this material's suitability to be a musical.

The story has narrative echoes of the 1990 film Come See the Paradise, and the 1994 David Guterson novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, adapted for the screen five years later. Neither of those movies worked, for various reasons, though while watching Allegiance struggle to translate its honorable intentions into gripping, multidimensional entertainment, the feeling remains that film, television or even a nonmusical play would be a better medium in which to address this shameful episode of racial politics. At a time when sweeping anti-immigrant statements are prompting many to re-examine the complex reality of what constitutes an American, the thematically diffuse treatment here represents a missed opportunity.

Nonetheless, writers Marc Acito, Kuo and Lorenzo Thomas have woven together a plot that's admirable in its bid to shine a light on the injustices committed against 120,000 West Coast Americans of Japanese descent, by focusing on the festering discord within one such family.

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The Kimuras have long been settled in California, running an artichoke farm for the past 20 years, when youngest son Sammy (Telly Leung) returns from college to be reunited with his unmarried older sister Kei (Lea Salonga), their widowed father Tatsuo (Christopheren Nomura) and grandfather Ojii-chan (Takei), who provides the family's spiritual ballast. But their security is shattered once the voice of F.D.R. announces over the radio that Japanese armed forces have bombed Pearl Harbor. Tatsuo predicts difficult times ahead, while American-born Sammy hurries off with friends from similar backgrounds to enlist, only to be turned down. The Army has classified them as "enemy aliens."

D.C. bureaucrat Mike Masaoka (Greg Watanabe) — head of the Japanese American Citizens League and the one character here lifted from history — urges everyone to remain calm and trust in the fairness of the American way. But along with countless others, the Kimuras are forced to evacuate their home. They sell the farm for a fraction of its worth, and are transported to an internment camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, taking with them only what they can carry.

Stoical Tatsuo insists they will "make do," despite the harsh conditions, while Ojii-chan invokes the Japanese tradition of gaman, or endurance with dignity, which becomes a key theme. Sammy attempts to bolster morale in the camp by organizing baseball games and dances, at the same time pursuing a shy — and thinly drawn — romance with Hannah Campbell (Katie Rose Clarke), an army nurse unsettled by the treatment of detainees. But Sammy's determined optimism clashes with the bitterness of his sister's sweetheart Frankie (Michael K. Lee), who has had no news of his parents since they were arrested the day after Pearl Harbor.

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That growing split within a community helpless to comprehend its persecution is central to the drama, but it's also the part that's least satisfyingly captured in Kuo's generic songs. The score ranges with neither cohesion nor distinction from brassy 1940s pastiche through declamatory recitative (the latter with lovely Japanese inflections of wind chimes and samisen); from insipid romantic ballads to inspirational Broadway anthems whose relentless build seems studied according to the Les Miserables model. But the songs and their platitudinous lyrics lack personality, despite the best efforts of the talented performers.

Framing the 1940s story, the elderly Sammy (Takei), a decorated war veteran from the famous 442nd regiment, receives news of the death of his estranged sister in 2001. His military division — composed entirely of American-born Japanese soldiers and dubbed by one character as "a suicide battalion" — was the brainchild of Masaoka, providing a means for men of Japanese ancestry to prove their loyalty to the U.S. Sammy's patriotism and brave leadership land him on the cover of LIFE magazine, and make him fiercely critical of men like Frankie, who leads a draft resistance movement back in Wyoming. "We won't fight until our families are free," says Frankie.

There are ingredients for rich drama in the divisiveness among victims of racist hysteria grasping at different ways — all of them no-win scenarios — to honor their personal convictions while proving their allegiance to a nation guilty of appalling mistreatment. Tatsuo's removal to a hard labor camp for his refusal to sign the government's compromising loyalty oath, and Kai's rallying of the women to raise national press awareness of conditions in the internment camps also add to the narrative texture, bringing greater trenchancy to the show's second act.

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But the broad-strokes storytelling of a musical (or this one, at least) seems ill-suited to examining such complex issues, and the book's superficial character development doesn't help either. Maybe masters of the dark like Kander & Ebb might have been able to do this story justice in song, but Kuo and his co-writers are not up to the task, sacrificing the specifics in their bland focus on universal themes of love, family and redemption. Which is too bad, because it's a painful chapter that needs to be shared.

Donyale Werle's wood-paneled sets have an evocative Japanese flavor, and projections are smartly utilized, such as in the arresting depiction of the Hiroshima bombing. But Stafford Arima's direction generally lacks imagination, struggling to inject momentum into the material. The cast, however, brings unquestionable conviction.

Leung (a Glee regular) sings in a beautiful clear tenor and has an appealing presence as a young man who inherited his father's stubbornness — even if the actor's chemistry with the sweet-voiced Clarke is weak. Distinguished baritone Nomura brings gravitas, and a fine balance of sternness and warmth to Tatsuo. Lee's Frankie comes on like a plucky, easygoing guy, deftly revealing his righteous indignation by degrees. And Tony winner and erstwhile Disney princess Salonga's return to Broadway shows her voice to have lost none of the exquisite airiness or the stirring power of her Miss Saigon days more than 25 years ago. Even with forgettable numbers, it's always a pleasure to hear her sing.

While his dual roles are small, the most moving work comes from beloved Star Trek veteran Takei, who brings gentle, albeit sometimes corny, humor to Ojii-chan. His deep personal association to the material and evidence of a generous spirit of forgiveness dictate the tone, and are among the show's strengths.

Telly Leung and company

Cast: George Takei, Telly Leung, Lea Salonga, Katie Rose Clarke, Michael K. Lee, Christopheren Nomura, Greg Watanabe, Darren Lee, Rumi Oyama, Catherine Ricafort, Scott Watanabe, Janelle Toyomi Dote, Aaron J. Albano, Momoko Sugai, Marcus Choi, Elena Wang, Dan Horn, Scott Wise, Kevin Munhall
Director: Stafford Arima
Book: Marc Acito, Jay Kuo, Lorenzo Thione
Music & lyrics: Jay Kuo
Set designer: Donyale Werle
Costume designer: Alejo Vietti
Lighting designer: Howell Binkley
Sound designer: Kai Harada
Projection designer: Darrel Maloney
Choreographer: Andrew Palermo
Music director: Laura Bergquist
Music supervision, arrangements, orchestrations: Lynne Shankel
Presented by Sing Out, Louise Productions, ATA, Mark Mugiishi/Hawaii HUI, Hunter Arnold, Ken Davenport, Elliott Masie, Sandi Moran, Mabuhay Productions, Barbara Freitag/Eric & Marsi Gardiner, Valiant Ventures, Wendy Gillespie, David Hiatt Kraft, Norm & Diane Blumenthal, M. Bradley Calobrace, Karen Tanz, Gregory Rae/Mike Karns, in association with Jas Grewal, Peter Landin, Ron Polson