There is a brief, searing moment in the new Broadway musical Allegiance where its unique point of view—World War II from a Japanese-American perspective—catalyzes the human cost of war across borders in stark visual terms. As the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is invoked, the stage is filled with Asian faces. All along these performers have been the Japanese-American citizens interned by the American government. Suddenly they are transformed into Japanese civilians murdered by the same government. It’s a potent juxtaposition. Alas this scene is only a small part of the musical which is focused on how one family was torn apart by the Japanese-American internment. Allegiance still manages to be moving at times, but overall the uninspired music and slight lyrics fail to deliver the impact of this important story.
Told in flashback by World War II veteran Sam Kimura (George Takei), he remembers the events leading to his family’s internment and how their relationships became strained during the war. Kei Kimura (Lea Salonga) has taken care of and raised her brother Sammy (Telly Leung plays the younger Sam) since their mother died while giving birth to him. Their taciturn father Tatsuo (Christòpheren Nomura) is always pushing Sammy to be more and Sammy seems to disappoint his father no matter what he does. Their grandfather (also George Takei) just wants to tend his garden and have his grandchildren be happy. They live a peaceful life as farmers in Salinas, California until the outbreak of the war when they, and all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, are forcibly ordered to relocate to internment camps in the American interior.
Sammy wants to enlist but Japanese-Americans are classified as “enemy aliens.” Sent to a shoddily constructed camp where they are surrounded by armed guards and have no privacy, it feels more like a prison than a home. Humiliation upon humiliation starts to pile up on the internees. Only a nurse, Hannah (Katie Rose Clarke), shows a little kindness and catches Sammy’s eye. When the government demands the internees swear loyalty to the U.S. and pledge to fight for the U.S. military, two factions in the camp emerge. Sammy and his pals can finally prove their willingness to fight for America and rush off to enlist. But law student Frankie (Michael K. Lee) and Kei see an insidiousness in swearing loyalty to a country that is denying them their civil liberties and fundamental freedom, so they rebel.
Allegiance faithfully explores the questions of loyalty and honor that arose during the internment, the tensions between the generations of Japanese-Americans affected, and the ways in which internees either capitulated to government pressure or protested. The behind-the-scenes government machinations are represented by Mike Masaoka (Greg Watanabe) who headed up the Japanese-American Citizens League which worked with the U.S. government to organize the internment and find ways that Japanese-Americans could “prove” their loyalty to the United States.
The musical addresses these nuanced issues in broad strokes (and Masaoka feels demonized in the process, when F.D.R. and his administration are barely mentioned and should also be taking a healthy share of the blame). Ultimately, the musical focuses on Kei and Sammy to see the human cost of these opposing positions. But it is more effective expressing basic ideas of family and love than it is wrestling with the complexities of the political situation.
The songs with music and lyrics by Jay Kuo often just repeat information we have already learned in the short book scenes (the book was written by Marc Acito, Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione). With facile, obvious rhymes and not much musical color, the songs fail to intensify the emotion or advance our understanding of the story. Later book scenes strain credulity and the unbelievable plot machinations required to wrap-up the story threaten to undermine the whole undertaking.
There are however some bright lights in this show. Lea Salonga makes Kei the richest character we see. The layers of her role as surrogate mother, caretaker, and independent woman get teased out nicely by Salonga. Her song “Higher” allows her to reflect on her changing relationship with Sammy. The dynamic imagery and poetry in “Higher” stands in stark contrast to many of the songs which lack that kind of style and panache and it is the rare number that takes us out of the moment immediately leading up to the song and enriches our understanding of the character of Kei.
Michael K. Lee plays the enigma of Frankie with aplomb and raises the energy of the show when his character turns the camp dance party into tongue-in-cheek satirical number called “Paradise.” Sadly, we don’t see enough of Frankie or Lee in the show.
The story largely rests with the character of Sammy who is single-minded in his desire to fight. Although he dominates the stage time his message always seems to be the same one and it starts to grate. The flinty, sometimes unlikable character of Sammy makes it hard to stay invested in the story and Telly Leung never quite feels like he has a handle on who Sammy really is.
Despite these drawbacks, the obvious horrific situation of this family and their neighbors can still generate emotion. There are nicely drawn scenes reflecting the tension and interplay between family members and the impossible position they have been put in. But with awkward choices by director Stafford Arima, some of these sentimental moments become cringe-worthy.
The talented cast and serious historical subject matter deserve a first-rate musical. Allegiance presents many thoughtful ideas and interesting characters but the music and story fail to coalesce into a cohesive, artful endeavor.