Broadway Review: ‘Allegiance’ with Lea Salonga and George Takei

Allegiance review Broadway
Matthew Murphy

The strength of “Allegiance” is in the story. Not the musical’s book, which is no more than serviceable, but the disturbing real-life events behind it.  After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, 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 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.

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.

The Kimura family is such a group. By order of the U.S. government, the widowed Tatsuo Kimura (Christopheren Nomura, who has a great chesty baritone), his daughter Kei (the golden-voiced Lea Salonga of “Miss Saigon”), his son Sammy (Telly Leung, wispy acting, lovely tenor), and his aged father, Ojii-chan (the noble George Takei) are forced to evacuate their home, forfeit their thriving farm business, and relocate to the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming.

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.

Sammy, who was born in California and has never even been to Japan, is so desperate to show his loyalty that he’s determined to enlist in the Army. His embittered father makes the situation worse by clinging to his resentment. Sammy’s kind-hearted sister Kei is no rebel, until she falls in love with the camp political agitator, Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee), and is converted.

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. He even makes a bet on it. (“Two dollar say I make garden grow in hard ground.”)

A song to that effect, “Gaman,” which roughly translates as “keep faith and endure,” is one of the few songs in the show that, despite the banal lyrics, seems to have an authentic Japanese sensibility. So does “Ishi Kara Ishi,” in which Ojii-chan reminds the younger generation that even mountains can be moved — stone by stone.

But such authentic moments are few and fleeting, overwhelmed by standard love songs and musical soliloquies about personal feelings. In their sincere efforts to “humanize” their complex historical material, the creatives have oversimplified and reduced it to generic themes.

Notwithstanding gems like “Cabaret” and “Grey Gardens,” that’s pretty much what conventional Broadway musicals do with difficult material. Characters are trimmed down to their broadest traits. (If Sammy is one-hundred-percent gung-ho patriotism, then Frankie must be one-hundred-percent revolutionary fury.) Complicated political issues are restricted to surface elements. (Conditions at the real Heart Mountain Camp were more interesting than the death-camp environment pictured here.)

It must be said that the production values of director Stafford Arima’s production are quite high. The design of the show is highly stylized, but in a meaningful way.  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. Alejo Vietti’s period-perfect costumes and the hair styling by Charles G. LaPointe place that reality in its proper time frame.  The evocative lighting (Howell Binkley) and sound elements (Kai Harada) are equally skillful, and Darrel Maloney’s video projections actually advance the plot.

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.

allegiance-review-broadway

Broadway Review: 'Allegiance' with Lea Salonga and George Takei

Longacre Theater;  1091 seats; $145 top. Opened Nov. 8, 2015. Reviewed Nov. 5. Running time: TWO HOURS, 30 MIN.

Production

A presentation by Sing Out, Louise! 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. Bradley Calobrace, Karen Tanz, and Gregory Rae / Mike Karns, in association with Jas Grewal, Peter Landin, and Ron Polson, of the Old Globe Theater production of a musical in two acts with book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione; music & lyrics by Jay Kuo.

Creative

Directed by Stafford Arima. Choreographed by Andrew Palermo. Sets, Donyale Werle; costumes, Alejo Vietti; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Kai Harada; projections, Darrel Maloney; wigs & hair, Charles G. LaPointe; music supervision, arrangements, and orchestrations, Lynne Shankel; production stage manager, Peter Wolf.

Cast

George Takei, Telly Leung, Lea Salonga, Katie Rose Clarke, Michael K. Lee; Christopheren Nomura, Greg Watanabe.

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  1. Eliza berg says:

    The whole article is meaningless when the first paragraph gets a very important date incorrect…..the fact it has been up there all day and made it past an editor is terribly sad….Pearl Harbor was bombed in1941…. Not 1942.

  2. Clark says:

    Good to see the professional victim Takei has something to do other than bitch and whine for a change.

  3. haroldamaio says:

    —(Conditions at the real Heart Mountain Camp were more interesting than the death-camp environment pictured here.)

    “Interesting?” Why do I find that comment offensive?

    • Ellin says:

      A dear friend of mine was incarcerated at Heart Mountain with her family when she was a young girl. “Interesting” was not a word she ever used to describe the conditions there. I, too, find Ms. Stasio’s comment offensive and ignorant. It is disappointing to read a review written by a critic who claims an authoritative voice but appears to know little about the Japanese American experience during and since the internment.

      My multi-racial family saw Allegiance during previews, and we were deeply moved and inspired by this wonderful production. This musical did a brilliant job of capturing these shameful historical events while accurately representing how many Japanese American reacted and coped with this atrocity. The story skillfully covered a vast amount of history, through well-told individual and family narratives. While the play was specific to these historical events, it contained many universal themes as well. The acting and singing were superb, and the cast was phenomenal. The musical included just the right amount of humor to balance out the serious subject matter, something that my teenage daughter really appreciated. The sets were also exceptionally creative and enhanced the storytelling perfectly.

      Allegiance is the only Broadway production my family has ever been able to attend that was truly told from a Japanese American voice and perspective. It meant so much to my family to be able to watch a musical that brought this level of authenticity to its subject matter. Perhaps for this reason, the audience was predominately composed of Asian theater goers during the matinee we attended. We felt honored and thrilled to attend this historic theater event. Kudos to George Takei and everyone else involved in bringing this must-see musical to the Broadway stage!

  4. SN says:

    Stasio’s opinion is no more meaningful than anyone’s, but it fills up space on the website

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