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.