Monday, November 02, 2015


I saw something I've never seen when I went to an October evening preview of Allegiance: a 69-question survey taped to my seat. From queries about story lines and characters to why you chose the show, every possible topic seemed covered, including a song-by-song list where you evaluated each musical number using a Likert scale. My hope is that the production does some tinkering, but mostly stays intact after it opens on November 8th. For Allegiance tackles a moment in American history that deserves more discussion. Impressively, rather than sanitizing the time's brutality, the show shines a harsh light on the oppression Japanese-Americans suffered while offering humor, love and hope.

The story, inspired by George Takei's (Mr. Sulu from "Star Trek," "Heroes") own internment in his childhood starts in present time when an embittered World War II veteran, Sam Kimura (Takei, in his Broadway debut), goes to his sister's funeral and remembers all that his family suffered in the early 1940s. The show flashes backwards, opening to a lovely scene where young Sam's family is celebrating an annual Japanese ritual, where individuals tie wishes on trees, a ceremony explained in the lilting number "Wishes on the Wind." Especially potent is the presence of friends and neighbors -- the same people who turn on the family in the next scene, offering them a mere pittance for the farmlands the Kimuras must sell prior to going to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming.

       Michael K. Lee, George Takei and Lea Salonga

Allegiance tries to show the many sides to this story: why some Japanese-Americans moved to the internment camps without complaint; why some rebelled against their treatment while others accepted it; and why some tried to prove their patriotism by joining an unwelcoming Army. Young Sam or "Sammy" (Telly Leung of "Glee" fame) tries to make the best of the situation, planning baseball games and dances, and then becoming a military hero. Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee) characterizes the side of the resistance and clashes with Sammy frequently. Meanwhile, Sammy's dutiful sister, Kei (Lea Salonga), begins questioning her own loyalties -- to her family and her country -- as her father (Grammy-nominated baritone Christópheren Nomura) is jailed for refusing to sign a fealty oath.

When Variety reviewed the Old Globe version of Allegiance  in 2012, Bob Verini praised the cast of the production, but said that "the writing would need considerable toughening up to withstand Broadway's harsh glare," and the Los Angeles Times offered that "Allegiance presents a surprisingly mild story of family fractures, not an indictment of American failures. … Though peppered with promising scenes and powerfully sung by the largely Asian American cast, Allegiance retreats from the challenge of its own material and hasn’t found a consistent focus, tone or musical idiom." Since those reviews, the show has evolved: some roles, such as Tatsuo Kimura, Mike Masaoka and Hannah Campell are cast differently; and songs like "Better Americans," which Verini called a flop, is gone, as are a few others. Generally, the current score by Jay Kuo pleases, with a nice blend of upbeat numbers and sweet ballads -- which  infuse aspects of Japanese culture and the Big Band sound of the time period into a few numbers.

(SPOILER ALERT AHEAD) Still, some material continues weighing down the production. For instance, Greg Watanabe's scenes as Japanese-American advocate/figurehead Mike Masaoka (the only actual historical figure of the show and a character that has undergone revisions) still never really reveal the complexities of the situation, or of the man who accepted such compromises for his people. The show continues to vilify him too much rather than, oh, say, the American government, which imprisoned 120,000 of its citizens. Some of the plot goes outside the perimeter of believability as well -- for instance, Sammy's sudden and surprising transformation to a more jaded and opinionated self, someone capable of family estrangement, and the final scene, where forgiveness is abruptly found. (SPOILER ALERT ENDED) During the internment camp scene, the song list need a little whittling, too, since "I Oughta Go" and "Should I," where Hannah and Sammy begin their relationship, seem too similar (IMHO, I'd eliminate the first song.).

Despite that, the book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione creates vivid and compelling characters, and it's a delight to see such a superb cast embody them. Takei is both whimsical and sagacious as Ojii-chan, the Kimuras' eldest family member, who talk-sings adorably in just one musical number. In this sweet moment, the always-sublime Salonga (Miss Saigon, Les Misérables, Flower Drum Song) winningly sings "Ishi Kara Ishi," with him, interweaving some quiet Japanese traditionalism amid the more buoyant songs, such as the fun "Get in the Game" and "Paradise," two pieces that showcase Sammy's and Frankie's polarized positions. Later, Salonga shows off her pipes by belting "Higher," her character's self-discovery number, where she leaves her mousy presence behind to embrace a more fighting spirit. Leung transforms easily from an earnest farm boy to an angry survivor sure of his own allegiances. Lee and Katie Rose Clarke (as Nurse Campbell) offer feisty and likable love interests. Even the supporting characters deliver -- from Christópheren Nomura's dignified metamorphosis from pacifist to protester, to the delight of seeing ensemble member Scott Wise (Tony for Jerome Robbins' Broadway) again on the Great White Way. Also adding to the production is the clever set by Donyale Werle, which uses shifting panels to convey the internment camp, and the projection design by Darrel Maloney. Both depict the bleakness of the camp and the lives of the people in it.

Sandra Mardenfeld
( Orchestra, Purchased Ticket)

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