It’s 1941, and Japan has attacked Pearl Harbor, and all of the Japanese living on the Pacific Coast of American, approximately 120,000 of them, regardless of where they were born, become suspect, and are deemed by the U.S. government to be a risk and a danger to American itself. It begins with Japanese Americans not being able to enlist in the Armed Forces, and is quickly followed by all Japanese being ordered to pack up. At gunpoint, thousands are shipped off to Internment camps, that are basically an American version of a concentration camp or prison.
This bit of shameful American history is the basis for Allegiance, the new musical on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre. It’s an extremely compelling and upsetting story based on a horrific time during World War II. This epic and moving musical centers on a multi-generational Japanese American family and how they survive their unjustly incarceration. The Kimura family are hard working and living fairly happily on their farm in California, which the father, Tatsuo Kimura (the magnificently voiced baritone, Christopheren Nomura) has worked diligently to make it a success. He is determined to make a better life for his two children, the eldest daughter, Kei Kimura (the magnificent Lea Solonga) and the younger and more combative son, Sammy Kimura (a powerful and handsome Telly Leung). Kei has been the acting mother of the family since their mother died giving birth to Sammy. It has robbed her from having a life of her own. Also, in their family is the sweet and wise grandfather, Ojii-chan (the wonderful and endearing George Takei, who also plays an older version of Sammy in 2001).
The family is forced to sell their farm to a neighbor for a fraction of its value, and they are sent off to Heart Mountain Relocation Camp, a former racetrack in Utah. Here at the camps, they are treated like the enemy, and questions of proving Allegiance and trustworthiness to an American population that hates them are argued and debated with their captors and with each other. Should they fight for their rights and freedom? Rebel against the government before being asked to prove their allegiance in battle? Or should they show their trustworthiness and loyalty first by fighting in the war, risking their lives in dangerous missions, and hope, in return, to be treated like the Americans they already are?
Many layers of racial prejudice and injustice are portrayed over the course of this slightly long ballad-heavy musical, lovingly directed by Stafford Arima. (I will add that I saw the production midway through previews unsure that what I saw would become the final product). Horrible treatment and brutal American soldiers are in abundance; along with a complicated take on a Japanese politician ‘doing his best’ in Washington, Mike Masaoka (a strong Greg Watanabe), the leader of a Japanese American Organization. There is also a very strong and sweet portrayal of a blond nurse at the camp, Hannah Campbell (a thoroughly charming Katie Rose Clarke) who’s views are challenged by the horrible prejudice she is witness to in the camp but also, by her being charmed by the delightful and flirtatious Sammy. Leung and Clarke are adorable together, and these moments are a welcome bit of real warmth and fun play in the songs. “With You”, and “I Oughta Go”. Some other fun lighter moments seemed a bit too light and silly, plugged into the upsetting narrative in hopes to give us some narrative relief.
The main big clash of ideals comes between Sammy and the rebellious Frankie Suzuki (a marvelous Michael K. Lee), and this is the core of this show. Filling out this complicated scenario is Frankie’s love for the warm and caring Kei, and Kei’s awakening to her womanhood rather then her maternal role. But at its heart, the central conflict between Frankie and Sammy felt a bit too fabricated for me; not something that would hang over their heads to this degree and length of time. I also found myself siding too quickly and too completely with the rebellious Frankie, the secondary character, rather then the lead’s ideals. This imbalance felt like it put the show a bit on shaky ground, making the post war family conflict less emotional devastating.
In the pivotal role of sister/mother/care giver/spinster, Lea Solonga does not disappoint. She sings beautifully and she’s given many moments and solos to shine. Both her and the rest of the cast perform wonderfully. It’s a big old-fashioned musical in essence, and it reminded me of Les Mis and it’s central conflict of rebellion and authority. There are many “One Day More” moments in Allegiance (Jay Kuo/music, lyrics, book; Marc Acito, Jay Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione/book), maybe even one too many. But I will say, many a tear came to my eyes and to the adoring crowd as their sad story comes to an end. We do love this family. Stubborn as they can be, they still make us care. And feel ashamed of this sad moment in American history.