Theater

‘Allegiance,’ Rarely-Told History Repeats Itself on Broadway

ae_takeiCast of the Broadway Musical, Allegiance

According to Mashable, a leading global media company for the “connected generation,” George Takei is the most influential person on Facebook. For those of us who grew up in the 1960s, Takei will always be remembered as Star Trek’s Lieutenant Sulu. But many years earlier, he played a role in a real-life American drama. At just five years old, he was taken with his family to live in one of World War II’s Japanese “relocation centers.” He and his family spent the next four years in a series of camps, as he puts it, “Simply because we looked like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor.”

This experience inspired Takei, now 78, to produce and star in the new Broadway musical Allegiance.

The show follows the Kimura family, successful Japanese American farmers in California in 1941. Son Sammy is a lackluster student, eager to enlist and fight for the U.S. His father, widower Tatsuo is demanding and stern, worried about what war with the Japanese will mean to them. His grandfather Ojii-chan is more philosophical, reminding the family that mountains can be moved, stone by stone, and gardens can grow even in hard earth. Sammy’s sister Kei, who raised him after their mother’s death in childbirth, is the heart of the group.

Sammy and his friends are rejected by the army (“A Jap is still a Jap”), and the Kimuras and other members of their community are settled at the injudiciously named Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming. They are forced to sell their property (for a fraction of its worth) and may only bring what they can carry. There, they are housed in modest barracks, fed in mess halls and provided with bare minimal healthcare. Surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by armed guards, it is essentially a prison.

The Kimuras make the most of their situation, playing baseball and holding dances, and attempting to remain loyal Americans. Romances blossom against the odds as people are torn between the concept of “Gaman,” endurance with dignity, and standing up for their Constitutional right to protest. Sammy is finally allowed to serve as part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated Japanese-American corps sent on “suicide missions” and emerging as one of the most decorated units of U.S. Army history. Sammy returns a war hero and the family starts over in San Francisco, but there are wounds that can’t be healed.

If this sounds like powerful stuff, be assured that it is. And, it’s quite clear from the moment Allegiance starts that the cast, crew and creative team have poured their hearts into it.

Lea Salonga, who is just radiant as Kei Kumura, is best-known for her Tony Award-winning role in Miss Saigon. (She also won London’s Olivier, the Drama Desk, Outer Critics and every other award for it.) Salonga was just 17 when she was cast as Vietnamese prostitute Kim. Now 44, her voice retains the purity and power she knocked us all out with then. Her rendition of “Higher” toward the end of the first act, remembering how she helped her younger brother soar, is one of the musical highlights of the show. This is due almost entirely to Salonga rather than the merits of the song. But, I’ll address that later.

Sammy is played by Telly Leung, a young tenor who may be familiar to audiences as one of the lead singers of the Warblers, the acapella competition on TV’s Glee. He does a fine job, especially when his character is sent to fight in Italy. His bravery and commitment, in the face of unbearable odds is believable and heartbreaking.

Kei and Sammy’s father, Tatsuo, isn’t a particularly likable role, but Christoheren Nomura is tremendous. A Grammy-nominated baritone he adds power and dignity to his scenes. His eventual acceptance of his son’s choices is quite moving. Michael K. Lee is Frankie, another resident of Heart Mountain, who is outraged by the government’s treatment of the Japanese Americans. He tears up his draft card (“We won’t fight until we’re free!”), and as he woos Kei, he encourages her to take action as well, albeit in a less radical — and dangerous — way. Sammy also finds love in the unlikely form of a Caucasian nurse, Hannah, played with earnest sweetness by Katie Rose Clarke.

Allegiance is “inspired by true events,” and elements of the story are drawn from Takei’s early years. (Like Tatsuo, Takei’s own parents refused to sign an infamous loyalty questionnaire and were sent to a work camp.) But, the only character directly taken from history is that of Mike Masaoka, National Secretary and Field Executive of the Japanese American Citizens League. Masaoka worked closely with the Roosevelt administration and urged Japanese Americans to cooperate with the internment policies. Although cast more as turncoat than hero, Greg Watanabe does an excellent job conveying the man’s internal conflicts. He is playing a very long game and willing to sacrifice any “troublemakers” along the way.

With a uniformly tremendous cast, led by certifiable diva Salonga, the standout in Allegiance is George Takei himself. I found him a bit stiff as an elderly Sammy (“Sam”) in the prologue, but was delighted by his performance as Kimura grandfather Ojii-chan through the bulk of the show. He brings humor to otherwise sad scenes and suffers the internment years with grace and dignity.

Along with the wonderful acting and singing, the staging of Allegiance is particularly clever. Rough wood has been fashioned into sliding Japanese screens, effectively conveying the elegance of the family’s past with the austerity of their present. Projections are used at various points to add to the story and are especially effective when the characters learn of Hiroshima. Choreography is also well executed, even more so in quiet moments — like a battlefield when the fighting is over — than in dance numbers, per se.

My only issue with Allegiance, and unfortunately it’s a big one, is that the score doesn’t live up to the power and passion of the story. Jay Kuo’s lyrics are predictable and I doubt anyone left the Longacre Theatre humming anything. Some numbers seem downright out of place, like “Get in the Game,” which pitches a baseball analogy for how the camp residents need to behave.  Over all, the music is missing the sophistication it needs to tell this story.

Allegiance is a particularly topical story right now as presidential candidates debate what “to do” with Muslim Americans. I saw the show with several family members over the New Year’s holiday, and it was difficult to get tickets; in fact, we ended up sitting in two separate groups. But, there is one seat kept open every evening. Takei has reserved it for Donald Trump.

Whether the Don gets to see the show or not (and I hope he does), Allegiance serves as an important reminder to all of us. Segregating Americans based on race, background or religion is not — and never can be — a good idea.

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  • Shirley January 5, 2016 at 6:35 pm

    In 2014, I ran across a small town, McGhee, in southeast Arkansas where a World War II Japanese American Internment Museum is located. The actual internment camp no longer exists. George Takei and his family spent time as prisoners there. I was horrified to learn of this.

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  • Diane Dettmann January 5, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    Alexandra, thank you for sharing this review of “Allegiance.” I agree, it is a rarely told story. When I was a child, a wonderful Japanese family lived across the street from me in Minneapolis, Minnesota and I became close friends with their daughter. Years later, I found out that both her parents had been imprisoned in internment camps during WWII and I began to research the topic. The injustices her parents and thousands of Japanese Americans were forced to endure opened my eyes to a piece of America’s history I had known little about. In 2016, I released my historical fiction book, Courageous Footsteps A WWII Novel. The story focuses on two teenagers and their parents who are imprisoned during the war and the hardships they struggle to overcome. I dedicated the book to that wonderful Japanese family, their father will be 100 years old this year. I have not seen Allegiance, but hope to in the future. This piece of America’s history is a good reminder for all of us.

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