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Longacre Theatre, NYC

December 22, 2015

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors for Cabaret Scenes

(L-r) Takei,Salonga, Leung in Allegiance
(L-r) Takei,Salonga, Leung in Allegiance

Just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans living on the west coast were forcibly relocated to internment camps, stripped of their homes, businesses and belongings.  It was a shameful period in American history.

Allegiance, a musical at the Longacre Theatre, tells the story of one of those families and how they coped with their new conscripted life in a Wyoming encampment.  How could this degrading edge to American history happen in the “land of the free”?”  The reason for such an unjustified act by the U.S. government points painfully to racism and xenophobia. 

Inspired by the experiences of actor George Takei (Star Trek), the book was written by Marc Acito, Lorenzo Thione and Jay Kuo.  Kuo’s music and lyrics offer intermittent segments of poignancy and exuberance boosting the heightened emotions despite the fact that the situation itself was strong enough to stand alone.  Fictionalized, the story bookends in 2001 when Sam Kimura, played by Takei, receives a package in the mail from his late sister.  Flashback 40 years to the Salinas, California countryside in 1941 when Sam was a young man.  The family farm is prospering and celebrating together are grandfather Ojii-chan (also Takei), widowed father Tatsuo (full-bodied baritone Christòpheren Nomura), and the shy sister, Kei (Lea Salonga).

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  Tenor Telly Leung plays the younger, vigorous Sammy. 

They are loyal Americans, but when the U.S. government relocates them, they react in different ways.  The Kimuras sell their farm for a meager price and each takes one bag to board the train to Heart Mountain, Wyoming with its spare living quarters and poor medical care.

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  Tatsuo, is unable to protect his family and grows bitter.  He is later imprisoned for refusing to sign a loyalty oath.  Sammy, however, is determined to prove his allegiance to this country and eventually enlists in the Army, joining a Japanese-American fighting unit created by Mike Masaoka (Greg Watanabe). 

Another detainee, Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee) has a different viewpoint.  Brash and outspoken, he spouts political radicalism while charming Kei succumbs to his charisma and joins Frankie’s fight for equality.  A sympathetic nurse at the camp, Hannah Campbell (Katie Rose Clarke), helps the detainees get medicines they need and when she and Sammy fall in love, it adds a layer of interracial romance. 

The on-going music propels the story forward although most of the songs are not memorable and the lyrics, even the standout ballad, “With You,” will not play around in your brain after you leave the theater.  One perfect addition for the era is a lively ‘40s boogie-woogie,  “442 Victory Swing,” choreographed by Andrew Palermo and danced with energy by the largely Asian-American cast.

Leading this talented ensemble is George Takei, persuasive in his affecting portrayal of the aged Ojii-chan, infused with subtlety and humor.  Ojii-chan, who plants a garden in the unforgiving soil, believing it will grow, is an inspirational force.  His Japanese influence is reflected in two songs, “Ishi Kara Ishi,” assuring that change is always possible and “Gaman,” impressing endurance and perseverance.  The lovely Salonga brings the gentle Kei from reserve to commitment and sings her pop anthems like “Higher” with the white diamond clarity that charmed audiences in Miss Saigon 27 years ago. 

Captivating Katie Rose Clarke brings a blend of vivacity and empathy to Hannah and Leung is a firecracker, dancing and singing as the young Sammy, strong in his emotions and caring for his family.  Yet, there is a depth of characterization missing.  Noble ideals blanket the various personalities who are types rather than individuals.

Director Stafford Arima keeps a focus on the inequality of the internment.  The Japanese influence is evident in the show’s fine production values.  The set by Donyale Werle uses Japanese sliding screens and stylized design with Howell Binkley’s expressive lighting and delicate skill in Kai Harada’s sound.  A 12-piece band provides music, and moving the story effectively are video projections by Darrel Maloney.

With heart and heartbreak, Allegiance is a show worth seeing and George Takei is worth cheering for. 

Elizabeth Ahlfors

Born and raised in New York, Elizabeth graduated from NYU with a degree in Journalism. She has lived in various cities and countries and now is back in NYC. She has written magazine articles and published three books: A Housewife’s Guide to Women’s Liberation, Twelve American Women, and Heroines of ’76 (for children). A great love was always music and theater—in the audience, not performing. A Philadelphia correspondent for and InTheatre Magazine, she has reviewed theater and cabaret for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia City News. She writes for Cabaret Scenes and other cabaret/theater sites. She is a judge for Nightlife Awards and a voting member of Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.