Mar. 5, 2018 | By Bruce R. Feldman
"Allegiance," Aratani Theatre, Los Angeles, Feb. 21-Apr. 1, 2018
In Brief: "Allegiance" is far from a perfect musical, but there’s plenty to like and admire in this first-rate production.
Allegiance has a lot going for it, starting with a terrific ensemble of musical theater performers as good as any you’ll see this season. It also features spare yet expressive sets, atmospheric lighting, a topnotch orchestra, and it presents its somber subject in a nuanced, forthright way.
"Allegiance" features a large, gifted cast. (Photo: Michael Lamont)
The musical recounts a dark chapter in the 1940s when the federal government abruptly detained some 120,000 American citizens of Japanese descent in concentration camps, fearful that they might be spies or saboteurs. That we also were fighting Germany and Italy, but didn’t round up German- or Italian-Americans, is a point the writers of Allegiance make to submit that racial animus was the real reason for targeting this particular community.
Lives and businesses were ruined. Families were torn apart, as much from the punitive living conditions and remoteness of the camps as by divisions among fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles about how to respond. The earnest book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione explores this dilemma, focusing on three generations of the Kimura family.
At first, recent college graduate Sammy (Ethan Le Phong) wants to prove his patriotism by signing up to fight in the military. His sister Kei (Elena Wang) and father Tatsuo (Scott Watanbe) object, believing – or hoping – that keeping a low profile is best. Of course, Sammy is turned away at the recruiting office precisely because of his ethnicity, rendering the question of whether to resist or cooperate that much more difficult to answer.
Eymard Cabling as Franki, Elena Wang as Kei, and George Takei as Ojii-chan in the Los Angeles premiere of "Allegiance." (Photo: Michael Lamont)
Their predicament worsens once they arrive at Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming. While Kei, Tatsuo and granddad Sam (a splendid George Takei) are resolute – the sincere, uplifiting “Gaman” (“Carry On”) is their anthem – Sammy forms an action committee to improve camp conditions. “Get In The Game,” he and the company of younger internees proclaim with zeal.
Another young detainee, Franki (Eymard Cabling), is determined to resist. He and Kei fall in love, increasing tensions between her and Sammy. At the same time, Sammy and the camp nurse Hannah (Natalie Holt Macdonald), who is Caucasian, are falling for each other, a doomed relationship that reverberates long after the war is over.
"'Allegiance' is ambitious. It wants to be both entertaining and thought provoking."
There are lighter moments in the show, as well. An agreeable opening number, “Wishes On The Wind,” takes place at a Japanese festival and strikes a promising note at the outset. The afore-mentioned “Get In The Game” is fun, but too closely recalls “The Game” ballet in “Damn Yankees.” (Didn’t anyone notice?) Several ballads are pretty but forgettable.
Therein lies one of the problems with Allegiance. Jay Kuo’s tunes and lyrics feel conventional and derivative, sometimes sounding like a Disney musical, at other times referencing Broadway shows of the ‘50s and ‘60s.
The book is another reason the show doesn’t soar. It’s proficient, but we can too neatly see what’s coming next. On the plus side, the idea of bookending the World War II story in 2001 with Takei’s aging Sammy works very well to give shape and interest to the narrative.
Arriving at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center. (Photo: Michael Lamont)
Despite these deficiencies, Allegiance offers many pleasures. All of the players are wonderful. They sing and dance with style and spirit. Takei, playing two roles – the Kimuras’s wise grandfather during the war and the elderly, crotchety Sammy 55 years later – is endearing, funny, masterful. He’s a joy to watch whenever he’s on stage.
Snehal Desai directed the show, a co-production of the East West Players and the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. Desai keeps everyone and everything moving along smoothly and at the right pitch, even when, or especially when, the bromidic book and so-so score start to sap the show’s energy.
Allegiance is ambitious. It wants to be both entertaining and thought provoking. Audiences who can look past the weak spots will find that the musical does both a good deal of the time.
“Allegiance,” Aratani Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St., Los Angeles, www.AllegianceMusical.com