December 19, 2015

"Allegiance" May Be Too Faithful to the Past

Allegiance, the new musical about the forced internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, isn't doing well at the box office. On the one hand, that's understandable. It's an old-fashioned show that has none of the edginess of The Book of Mormon or the flashiness of Aladdin. 

On the other hand, it's a shame Allegiance isn't doing better because no other show on Broadway right now speaks more directly to this moment when presidential candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are calling for all Muslims, including those who are American citizens, to be banned from entering the country.

George Takei, forever best known as Mr. Sulu on the original "Star Trek" TV show and movies, is the central force behind Allegiance. He not only stars in the show but it is inspired by his experience as a child in one of those American concentration camps (click here to read his real story).

Takei has made every effort to draw parallels between America's unfair treatment of Japanese-Americans in the '40s and its suspicious attitude toward Muslim Americans today, from his curtain call speeches to a video in which he challenged Trump to visit the show and debate the issue (click here to see the video).

But once past the politics, there's a fusty paint-by-the-numbers quality about Allegiance as though its creators had crammed the Rodgers & Hammerstein playbook right before they wrote it.

Jay Kuo, who has a day job as the CEO of a digital publishing company, has written soaring ballads and endless reprises but none of the show's two dozen songs stuck in my memory. And Kuo, Marc Acito and Lorenzo Thione have collaborated on an R&H-style book that features lovers from different worlds and lots of moral uplift, particularly on the issues of race and tolerance, but they struggle with how to balance the show's overall tone.

It's all well-intentioned stuff and, under Stafford Arima's forthright direction, it's prettily presented (the sets by Donyale Werle do a lovely job with what seems to have been a modest budget) but Allegiance lacks the spark that would make it a must-see. Maybe it just isn't angry enough. And there's plenty to be angry about.

The story is bookended by a prologue and an epilogue set in 2001, 60 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor prompted America's entry into the war. But the heart of the tale begins as the members of a Japanese-American farming community, including the Kimura family—the siblings Kei and Sam and their father and grandfather—are ordered to pack a few belongings, forced to sell their fertile land in the Salinas Valley at a fire-sale price and deported to the barren and isolated Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming.

Once at the center, the young men detained there split into two factions: those, including Sam, who believe that serving in the U.S. military will prove their loyalty; and those, lead by Kei's love interest Frankie, who refuse to fight for a country that they say has betrayed its citizens and its ideals by locking up innocent people solely on the basis of their skin color. These differing views create a rift that intensifies when Frankie fails to protect the center's young white nurse with whom Sam has fallen in love.

The performances are, frankly, mixed. Takei, now 78, falls back on the personal goodwill he's built up over the years in his role as the grandfather who hands out wisdom and wisecracks in equal measure. Meanwhile, Christòpheron Nomura is as wooden as a ship plank in his role as Sam's dad but has a majestic baritone voice that almost makes up for that.

Luckily, Michael K. Lee is rock-solid as Frankie and Telly Leung is all that anyone could want—sexy and strong-voiced—in a leading man. I've also heard that Lea Salonga, the original Tony-winning Miss Saigon, was just as good as Sam's sister Kei but Salonga was out the night my niece Jennifer and I saw the show.

Perhaps worried that there might be a mass exodus once the word got out, the production and house staffs at the Longacre Theatre kept the news of her absence low-key, burying it in a full cast list that was tucked inside the Playbill, instead of using the slip of paper that traditionally indicates when a replacement is going in or making an announcement at the top of the show.

Two women in the row behind us wondered aloud if they could trade in their tickets when they figured out what had happened. I told them they could and they hurried out just before the lights went down. But the lady sitting next to me, who said she had traveled in from the Philippines just to see Salonga, who is a huge star in her native land, decided to stick it out. And by the end, seemed glad that she had.

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