Music and Lyrics by Jay Kuo
Directed by Stafford Arima
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, 127,000 Japanese-Americans were forced to abandon their homes and businesses and – throughout World War II – relocate to ten concentration camps scattered across the interior of the United States. This remains one of the most flagrant violations of civil liberties in American history – all initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and sanctioned by the United States Government. Although the order was repealed following the end of World War II, most of internees were not able to return to their homes and simply scattered across the United States. “Allegiance” is the new musical that chronicles the experience of one extended Japanese American family based on the experience of George Takei who stars in this important and touching Broadway musical.
The musical begins and ends in San Francisco in 2001 with the older Sam Kimura (George Takei) learning of his sister Kei’s (Lea Salonga) death through a visit by the executor of her will and deciding – after reflecting on their history – to attend her funeral and burial. The redemptive reflection – in flashback – is the setting for “Allegiance” following Sam’s story from Salinas, California to the internment at The Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, Washington including Sam’s eventual deployment in the European theatre of World War II.
Under Stafford Arima’s taut but inconsistent direction, the ensemble cast works diligently and professionally to bring Sam’s story to the musical stage. Mr. Arima consistently stages significant solos on either far stage left or right leaving most of the audience (at one time or another) at a considerable distance from the actor. There are times when the subplots driven by the characters’ conflicts detract somewhat from the main conflict. Takei delivers a poignant and memorable performance as both Sam Kimura and Ojii-chan. Lea Salonga and Telly Leung are superb as Sam’s children Kei and Sammy each dealing with the relocation in believably different ways. Ms. Salonga is underutilized in this musical and deserves stronger solo numbers. Michael K. Lee excels in his important role as Frankie Suzuki and serves as the perfect foil to Sammy. Mr. Lee understands his character with remarkable authenticity and is to be commended for his outstanding performance.
Donyale Werle’s set design successfully supports the action of the musical in every scene and location. Its sliding walls – with rice paper and slatted wooden design – give authenticity to the setting including the time, location, and mood. Alejo Vieti’s costumes and Howell Binkley’s lighting design provide additional layers of authenticity to the production and contribute to the overall attention to detail exhibited by the entire creative team.
The importance of “Allegiance” and the remarkable strength of its principals and ensemble cast outweigh the new musical’s weaknesses. The book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione is not as strong as it needs to be to support the richness of the historical event and Mr. Takei’s story and the enduring questions it raises. The music and lyrics, too, fall short at times and – with the book – leave the audience wondering what the musical is about. There are stunning musical numbers, among them “Gaman,” “Ishi Kara Ishi,” “Higher,” “Resist,” and “How Can You Go.”
Despite these minor concerns, “Allegiance” remains a strong and successful musical dealing with an important part of American history. Its thematic content raises enduring questions about the current conversation regarding immigration, loyalty, and citizenship and adds considerable weight to that important discussion.