Instead of dwelling on the atrocious internment camps into which those of Japanese ancestry were shuttled post-Pearl Harbor, the Old Globe tuner “Allegiance” wants to pursue a bolder, ambitious inquiry into the nature of loyalty. What is owed a nation which can treat its citizens so shamefully? When are family feeling and patriotism at cross purposes? But while the personal material lands, the political stuff lacks nuance and weight in “Allegiance.” Despite a handsome production and talent to spare, the writing would need considerable toughening up to withstand Broadway’s harsh glare.
Idealistic, fresh-faced Sammy Kimura (Telly Leung) is pitted against intense, cerebral Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee), both giving powerhouse performances. They clash over the assimilationist, flagwaving line pushed by spokesperson Mike Masaoka, a real-life figure though you’d never know it from Paolo Montalban’s sweaty, uninteresting interpretation.
Counseling self-sacrifice and “gaman” (endurance with dignity), Mike inspires Sammy to enlist in the celebrated all-Nisei “Go for Broke” regiment. Back in camp, Frankie chafes at the idea of imprisoned folks serving their jailers, and condemns an infamous loyalty oath that demands a willingness to fight for the USA and forswear the faraway emperor.
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The sloganeering libretto, by songwriter Jay Kuo with Marc Acito and Lorenzo Thione, portrays both points of view as more or less reasonable until a last-minute, cheaply manipulative flip-flop tells us, out of left field, exactly what to think. In so doing, “Allegiance” comes dangerously close to branding every member of the honored 442nd regiment as fools and dupes, though the scribes don’t even seem to realize the thematic impact of their clumsy 11th hour reveal.
Again and again, the tuner settles for glib, superficial gestures when something more sophisticated is called for. “Better Americans,” a presentational patriotic satire a la Kander & Ebb, flops because Kuo’s lyrics aren’t clever and the joke never expands. An elaborate nod to Hiroshima, bearing no relevance to the main story, comes across as offensively overdone.
The Kimura family’s internal tensions are handled more surely, even when roles let thesps down. A now matronly Lea Salonga retains enough “Miss Saigon” fire to bring conviction to the underwritten part of Sammy’s sister and Frankie’s true love. Would Allie Trimm’s Quaker gal and Leung’s Japanese lad enjoy quite such a glitch-free courtship in 1942? Maybe not, but their chemistry is sweet and their scenes are charming.
Paul Nakauchi is stuck with a stock Asian patriarch whom the script calls “inscrutable,” but his integrity lends flint to the eventual camp resistance movement.
Best of all is grandpa George Takei, whose own family history is said to have informed the writing. Takei brings humor without overdone twinkle, gravitas without overstated sagacity. All he lacks is a talk-sung number to round out his character and, perhaps, firm up some of the show’s current thematic shakiness.
Helmer Stafford Arima keeps things moving deftly, with delicate Japanese influences brought in by Donyale Werle’s set-shifting sliding panels, the painterly emphasis in Howell Binkley’s lighting and hints of flute and samisen in Lynne Shankel’s orchestrations of Kuo’s workmanlike but mostly unmemorable songs.
Kuo might profitably have listened to more Glenn Miller. Given the show’s strict attention to period detail, the score seems woefully light on big band and boogie-woogie. He does seem to have played the “Les Miserables” cast album plenty, as the first act finale “My Time Now” smacks of “One Day More”; Salonga’s soaring “Higher” bears some allegiance to Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream”; and at the end of the day, the GIs’ “Go For Broke” may set you humming “At the End of the Day.”