Broadway Review: ‘Allegiance’ with Lea Salonga and George Takei
‘Allegiance’ on Broadway is inspired by life of George Takei.
The forced internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during the second world war remains one of the most shameful passages in America’s recent history, a move owing less to the exigencies of war and more to racist and xenophobic assumptions.“Allegiance,” a new musical about the internment of Japanese-Americans in camps during World War II, could be said to suffer from a problem of divided loyalties, and I’m not referring to its characters.The heavy-handed, cliche-driven “Allegiance” which opened Sunday at the Longacre Theatre tries to take on all three — but does so unsuccessfully in a bombastic and generic Broadway 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.
The show wants to illuminate a dark passage in American history with complexity and honesty, but the first requirement of any Broadway musical is to entertain. 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. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1942, some 120,000 people of Japanese descent living on the west coast, more than half of them U.S. citizens, were uprooted and forcibly relocated to internment camps for the duration of the war. The internment camps were not at all the equivalent of the Nazis’ concentration camps on the other side of the Atlantic; most of the detainees emerged relatively unharmed and were allowed to go on with their lives.
After a brief prologue set in 2001, Allegiance journeys 60 years to 1941, when the Kimura clan – son Sammy, daughter Kei, father Tatsuo, and grandfather Ojii-chan – are farming in reasonable comfort and contentment in central California. The musical presents a slice of life at one of those encampments, the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming, where activist inmates were jailed for organizing political protests. 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 Kimura family, artichoke farmers in California, find their lives upended when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor (we hear in voice-over the famous “date which will live in infamy” speech) and the United States enters the war.
The book by Marc Acito, Lorenzo Thione and Jay Kuo (who also contributed the bland score), does what musicals tend to do when dramatizing major historical events — attempt to “humanize” complex issues by refracting them through the experiences of a small representative group. While it’s great that an Asian cast is telling a chapter in its own history, it’s through an old-fashioned, stereotypical style that’s out of touch with where Broadway is going.
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. Sammy Kimura (Telly Leung), a recent college graduate, and some friends attempt to enlist but are humiliatingly rebuffed: “A Jap is a Jap,” says the recruiting officer with a shrug. 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. Like most families of Japanese ancestry — comprised of their Japan-born elders, their children and their grandchildren, all of whom are represented in the musical — the Kimuras are loyal Americans who react to their unjust treatment in a variety of ways.
Composer and lyricist Jay Kuo and book writers Marc Acito and Lorenzo Thione are striving so hard for stirring nobility that individuality or particular characterization falls by the wayside. And the creators of “Allegiance,” who clearly did not want to forge a musical infused by bitterness, were under no obligation to create a dark, edgy or sardonic piece like, say, “The Scottsboro Boys,” especially since the dignified endurance of many who were removed to the camps surely tempered the level of outrage in the years following the war. A cute 40s-style song that develops the attraction between Sam and a principled nurse (Katie Rose Clarke) is better; so is a comic tune in which Kei’s suitor Frankie (Michael K Lee) mocks the men in power. The “relocation center,” Heart Mountain, is of course a virtual prison, with barbed wire fences keeping the population from leaving, simple wooden barracks and a communal mess hall.
The outraged Sammy sings a surging ballad, “What Makes a Man,” in which he vows, “It’s time we took action/And found a way out of this place/I’ll set an example/Help others see beyond race.” His ambition is still to join the Army and prove that Japanese-Americans are as loyal as any others. One useful model, “Fiddler on the Roof,” is a warm-centered, romance-infused show about a persecuted community under both internal and external stress. 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. Only the venerable grandfather, Ojii Chan, played with enormous heart and humor by George Takei (whose childhood memories of life in an internment camp inspired the musical), shows traditional Japanese equanimity by planting a garden and trusting it to flourish in the dusty soil.
They work best when they are both specific and universal, when we see characters trying to maintain normalcy in the face of change all around, and when you really get to know a family. 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. Even the small number of emotionally potent ballads in Kuo’s florid, traditional and mostly romantic score are taken at a tempo where you wonder how the singer has any time to emote anything.
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. By combining an elegant form (Japanese sliding screens) with a rough material (untreated wood), set designer Donyale Werle provides an abstract reality for the camp.
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. One would have to be quite stoic or of a supremely Buddhist mindset not to weep at the final scene, when the trials and indignities of the past are finally allowed some small redemption.
He: “You know, I tried to enlist.” She: “Ya did, huh?” “Got rejected.” “Flat feet?” “Yellow face.” A duet ensues, he leaves with the cough syrup, and soon they are singing another, more overtly romantic number. The mood continues to lighten, at least briefly, when Sammy leads the rousing “Get in the Game,” urging his fellow internees to petition for their most urgent needs.
The evocative lighting (Howell Binkley) and sound elements (Kai Harada) are equally skillful, and Darrel Maloney’s video projections actually advance the plot. 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. As Kei and Sammy sing: “We’re stuck/Who knows how long?/And sure, it’s wrong/Alone it’s really hard/But as a team we’re strong.” (Those lyrics exemplify Mr. But for all their good intentions, the true believers behind this labor of love might have been better served had they entrusted the story to a dramatist to develop as a play.
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. Productions and ATA, with 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. Sammy is an ambitious and talented young man whose American dreams are put on hold, and who thus becomes determined to prove he is an American by trying everything from playing baseball to joining up and proving his willingness to die for his country as a member of that famously decorated unit of the U.S. military, the 442nd, composed entirely of Japanese-Americans. 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. As Frankie says, “So we can’t live free in this country, but we can die for it.” All this, mind you, takes place in just the musical’s first act.
Then a trio of dancing white soldiers arrive, singing a chirpy, swing-inspired ditty. “We thought you were the enemy/ You proved us wrong/Now just get back home where you belong/The whole messy business: whoops,” they sing blithely to the detainees. Unfortunately, none of these romances feel credible — Salonga and Lee struggle to connect with each other emotionally (they both seem in separate worlds), and you don’t really buy the other couple, either, partly because the dynamics of their relationship are not sufficiently explored. 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. 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.
I’m not complaining: Her voice retains its plush beauty, and her culminating first act solo, “Higher,” while doing nothing much to move the story forward, is perhaps the show’s musical highlight. 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.
Some scholars of Japanese-American history have objected to unnecessary factual inaccuracies, but the musical, which bills itself as being “inspired” by actual events (and in part by Mr.
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