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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Kudos again to Takei for using his renown as Star Trek's Mr. Sulu to promote the project, and actually be part of it as the Kimura family's endearing grandpa Oji-chah as well as the character who bookends the story's sixty year time span. Takei's name on the marquee isn't just a ticket selling casting gimmick. His debut, though in a minor role, contributes charm and humor and his family's own internment experience adds poignancy to his presence on stage.
Though it does have its joyous and fun moments, Allegiance is not a forget-your-troubles song and dance show. Unlike Les Miz and Cabaret, it's an American story though it does take us to three countries. Since the blatant post-Pearl Harbor racism that robbed so many American citizens of their rights strictly because they looked like the enemy has been kept pretty much under wraps, you could view Allegiance as an exposé.
Given the high risk of launching a new Broadway show you can't blame the creative team for opting for a conventional, emotion-grabbing way into the narrative. — even though the focus on the romances and familial strife the relocations generated tends to weaken the well deserved indictment of those who relegated more than a hundred thousand fellow Americans to enemy alien status.
The often used framing device to lead into a story with a flashback works. It has Mr. Takei portray the key Kimura family member as an old man and also become part of the main story. The writers are also reasonably true to their fictionalized history of actual events. As for Jay Kuos's score, it's aptly rousing and operatic though somehow not as thrilling as it should be. Though there are no instant stick-to-the-ear breakout numbers with further listening the emotional first act finale "Our Time Now" does have more than a touch of Les Miz's "One Day More."
The lyrics aren't especially clever or memorable, but the vocally strong cast sings the heck out of them. The deep, classical baritone of Christopheren Nomura's Tatsuo Kimura had me wondering if this story might not have been more suitable as an opera. However, that would mean we wouldn't have this outstanding group of musical theater veterans.
Lea Salonga as Sammy's sister Kei is in better voice than ever. Telly Leung radiates Sammy's passionate idealism, as does Michael K. Lee as Frankie Suzuki, who like Sammy's father, sees Sammy's willingness to fight for the country that's rejected them as being untrue to themselves.
The love affair between Kei and Frankie provide the show with its musical highlights as well as the life-long family rift. The second love affair involves Sammy with a Nellie Forbush-like volunteer nurse (another standout performance by Katie Rose Clarke).
The show's one real life character is Mike Masaoka who was spokesperson to the government for the Japanese American Citizens League. Though well-played by Greg Wantanabe, his presence in the story does tend to further soft pedal the American leadership's abysmal actions. The Masaoka related political elements simply aren't as convincing and nuanced as the personal stories.
Allegiance could be but isn't as edgy a super crowd pleaser as Hamilton. That said, it does add to the welcome increased diversity of Broadway casts. Besides the seven main characters, the large Allegiance ensemble is dominated by Asian-American actors. This ensemble also helps put the Kimuras into the larger context of horror of what happened to so many of their fellow Japanese-Americans.
Director Stafford Arima (also an Asian-American whose own family suffered the same fate as the Takeis-cum-Kimuras in Canada) has ably steered the actors from the prologue, to the internment center, the Italian and French war scenes, and back to post-war California. Scenic designer Donyale Werle's shoji-like panels accommodate fluid scene shifts. Howard Binkley's lighting and Darrel Maloney's projection design allow for a not particularly pertinent but stunning Hiroshima explosion. Aleji Vietti's costumes, especially for the women, are true to period.
While this isn't much of a dance musical, Andrew Palermo does make the most of the internment camp's dance for the young diversion-starved young internees and a post-victory celebration ("442 Victory Swing"). The multiple instrument playing 12-piece orchestra is not over amplified.
Though the audience at the press preview I attended was packed with Asians of all ages, this is not a show aimed at a limited audiences but neither is it a four-ticket selling family musical like Wicked. But it's refreshing to have a new musical not based on a movie, a novel or an existing musical catalogue. And it does have George Takei who even gets to sing a delighful little ditty called "Ishi Kari Ishi."