By Karen Isaacs
Allegiance, the new musical with Lea Salonga and George Takei, is a heartfelt story about human resilience, family and regrets.
If you just hear about the subject matter, you might think this was a depressing or dark show. Yet in the end you are amazed at the joy you will find while also considering the issue at hand.
The story is about what may be one of the most disturbing actions that the U. S. ever committed: the internment of 120,000 American born citizens of Japanese descent from the west coast in what was euphemistically called “relocation centers” in the early days of WW II. That these camps or centers existed until the war’s end and that the Supreme Court upheld the right of the government to strip these citizens of their basic Constitutional rights is disturbing enough.
The rationale was that though these people had been born in America and some were second and third generation, their loyalty could not be counted on because of their Japanese ancestry.
Parenthetically, fewer than 2,000 Italian immigrants (not citizens) were considered “enemy aliens” and about 12,000 German nationals in the US were interned. There was no mass relocation of Italian-Americans or German-Americans from the east coast.
I saw the show just a day after the Paris bombings, and long before some pundits and political figures began similar rants about Muslims.
Allegiance focuses on one family; the Kimuras who are farmers in northern California: the grandfather (Ojii-chan) who came to the US, his son Tatsuo, his granddaughter Kei and his grandson Sammy. As the war starts, they are forced to sell everything (at bargain prices to neighbors who were white) and report for transportation to a center, taking only what they could carry; not even baby strollers were allowed. The center the family is sent to, Heart Mountain in Wyoming, is barren, dusty and windy.
But despite the injustice, the families make do and over the years build a community. They practice “gaman” which means “endurance with dignity.” Yet there are divisions within the community. Sammy and some other young men are anxious to enlist with the hope that by proving their loyalty their families will be allowed to go home; others become angry at the second-class treatment and later in the war refuse to be drafted. Then there is the loyalty questionnaire that all are required to complete; two questions caused great consternation: one asked if they would fight for the US and the other asked them to renounce any loyalty to the Emperor. Those who did not answer yes to both questions were moved to harsher camps and some were deported.
The main characters in Allegiance reflect all of those difficulties. The grandfather, Ojii-chan, played by George Takei endures, while his son Tatsuo (Christópheren Nomura) refuses to answer the questionnaire appropriately and is taken away in handcuffs. Sammy (Telly Leung) is gung ho to fight, enlisting in an all-Japanese unit that is given the toughest and most dangerous assignments. He fights in Italy and becomes a war hero. Before that, he has become attracted to the white nurse on the base, Hannah (Katie Rose Clarke). She slowly realizes that being a nurse at the camp is not what she signed up for and realizes the injustice of it all. They plan to make a life together after the war. On the other side is Frankie (Michael K. Lee) another college educated internee who becomes bitter and refuses induction; Sammy’s sister Kei (Lea Salonga) is attracted to Frankie and becomes pregnant.
Interwoven into the story of the Kimura family is the efforts of Mike Masaoka (Greg Watanbe) and the Japanese American Citizens League. The League and Masaoka have been heavily criticized for urging Japanese Americans to go along with the internment and not fighting hard enough against the prejudice and restrictions. (The League is an organization that still exists and Masaoka was its field executive of the organization.) Yet given the times, it is difficult to know what he and the League could have achieved.
The musical moves between locations. It is framed as a flashback. It opens with the elderly Sammy (also George Takei) learning that his sister has died and that she has left some items for him. It is clear that there has been a terrible breach and he had not seen her in decades. From there we go Salinas, California and the start of the war. In act one, we switch between life at the camp at Heart Mountain and Washington, DC, where Masaoka does try to ameliorate conditions but is met by brick walls.
Act two switches first between Heart Mountain, and the war front in Pisa and France in 1944 and later during the close of the war between Heart Mountain, Washington, DC (where Sammy is hailed as a hero), and San Francisco where Ojii-chan, Kei and Frankie are living.
The musical brings us back to the elderly Sammy in the closing scene.
The book by Marc Aciuto, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thorne moves smoothly between the various locations and does a good job at illustrating the diversity of opinions not only among the Japanese-Americans but also among the whites. It is the white political leaders that come off the worse.. The music and lyrics by Jay Kuo captures the 40s sound of the pop hits and presenting us with some heartfelt ballads. He does not stoop to pseudo-anthems that manipulate emotions. These are songs that derive from the characters.
A number of the musical numbers made me look forward to the original cast CD which will soon be available.
Director Stafford Arima has done an excellent job at letting us know exactly where we are, which is not as easy as it seems. He helps the songs and dances to seem natural without slowing the action. He effectively balances both the dark elements of the story with the more hopeful elements and the more cynical political elements. The choreography by Andrew Palermo is reflective of the 1940s and reflects the many young people at the camp.
Lea Salonga gives a touching performance as Kei, the young woman is uprooted from her life and finds herself attracted to someone whom her brother opposes his. She is torn between concern for her grandfather, father, brother and her growing attraction to Frankie.
Telly Leung is the young Sammy – a man who is also torn. He shows us the young man who is trying to find a way to manipulate the system – to get medication for his grandfather or better facilities for his family. He finds himself attracted to the white nurse. His voice is strong and his dancing excellent. Sammy is a difficult role since at times he seems “too good to be true.”
George Takei plays the dual roles of the grandfather and the older Sam with quiet grace and determination.
So many of the cast are so very effective, it is hard to mention them all: Christópheren Nomura as the father keeps his anger at what is happening just below the surface. Katie Rose Clarke is both touching and lovely as the nurse, Hannah Campbell. Greg Wantanbe is smooth as Mike Masaoka while Michael K. Lee gives us an increasingly angry Frankie.
The scenic design by Donyale Wele, costumes by Alejo Vietti, lighting by Howell Binkley and other members of the production team contribute mightily to the effective of this piece.
Allegiance is a moving and touching story which some delightful music. It is at the Longacre Theater, 220 W. 48th St. Tickets are available through Telecharge.