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Allegiance: A Story to Remember

(Seen on 2/5/2016 on Broadway)

That voice in my head has an emotional review of Allegiance for you!

Allegiance really surprised me. I wasn’t expecting to get as emotional as I did. This musical tells a poignant story of sacrifice, dignity, self-growth, and familial love through the lens of Japanese American internment during World War II. Sounds dismal, and at times it rightfully was, but the overall tone of the show was incredibly hopeful. I feel extremely lucky to have seen this extremely powerful and important show, which finished its Broadway run on February 14th.

We all have George Takei to thank for bringing this show to life. Having spent three years of his childhood at an interment camp, Mr. Takei approached the other creative team members to create a musical that encompasses the different experiences and attitudes of Japanese Americans during this difficult time. It’s an ambitious undertaking, and despite a lack of critical acclaim, I thought it was very thoughtfully well done.

George Takei opens the show as Old Sam hearing about the death of his sister, Kei, played by the marvelous Lea Salonga. She urges him to remember “a time no one speaks of any more,” which opens up the floodgates to his memories. Having this musical told as a “memory” of sorts is brilliant because it centers the plot. As George Takei exits and the scene shifts, Telly Leung enters as Young Sammy, bright eyed and smiling. The opening number is happy and hopeful, setting up the family dynamic and character traits of each family member.

I would be remiss in not going into detail about Mr. Leung and Christopheren Nomura who played Tatsuro, the father. Mr. Leung’s Sammy was beautifully deep and sincere. His transformation from a naïve youngster to a jaded man with ghosts was impressive and very tragic. Mr. Nomura was simply great- what a voice!! I could’ve listened to his lovely baritone timbre all night!

The opening’s cheerful, festive tone makes the following scene all the more tear jerking. As the cast is herded into Heart Mountain Camp, they realize what terrible conditions they’ve been thrust into, and one female ensemble member breaks down screaming, tears running down her face, “I want to go home!” The force with which that line was delivered had me cringing in shock, disgust, and sadness that this actually happened.

Peppered with wonderfully delivered humor by Mr. Takei, Allegiance effectively balances the horror with the hope. It deftly shows the audience the atrocities faced by Japanese Americans. It subtly touches upon other horrors, as well: those faced by soldiers on the front lines, those in Japan in the wake of the atomic bomb, and even the difficulties faced by returning soldiers (i.e. survivor’s guilt, etc). Because it tells of the broad destruction of war, the show doesn’t feel “preachy;” I found myself sobbing with heartbreak instead of feeling hit over the head with information.

One of my favorite things about this show is Kei’s character development arc. She smoothly evolves from a timid, people-pleasing mother figure to a strong, independent go-getter. Writing the arc was ‘step one’ in making the transition believable, but Ms. Salonga’s exceptional acting makes it all the more sincere. And this is where I applaud the male writers of Allegiance: even though they’ve centered the show in Sammy’s male perspective, they’ve filled it with female empowerment. Kei, in the midst of facing intense hardship, doesn’t crumble under the pressure or find strength in a male savior. No, instead she finds strength within herself and carries on to triumph over injustice. Even from the grave, she has the power to change her brother’s mind, give him redemption, and bring their family back together again. Mark Acito, Jay Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione have created a truly inspiring female figure, and I’m absolutely in love with her!!

Another clever aspect in Mr. Kuo’s lyrics was the parallel between Sammy’s patriotic cause and Frankie Suzuki’s (played by the remarkable Michael K. Lee) prideful dissent. By doing so, the audience is forced to see both sides as equally justified and important; we’re not here to pick sides, we’re here to witness how two different people reacted to the same situation. It’s absolutely brilliant.

The ensemble of Allegiance deserves as much recognition as its main cast. Their eerie yet chillingly beautiful vocals, accompanied by stunning projections depicting atomic bomb explosions, during “Itetsuita” was a genuine tearjerker. Another gripping ensemble moment was at the end of the battle scene: the wives, sisters, and mothers of the fallen Japanese American soldiers pick up their dog tags to the sound of “furin,” Japanese wind chimes. It was so heartbreaking and so clever.

Allegiance has its cliché moments, too. For instance, Sammy falls in love with the camp’s Army nurse, Hannah (Katie Rose Clark), and while he’s off fighting in Europe, she dies in an accidental shooting. Kei’s lover, Frankie Suzuki, feels responsible for the shooting since he was resisting the army officer who shot her. Once Sammy finds out what happened, he feels betrayed (his sister and father accepted this draft deserter who also killed his lover!). He deserts his family, deleting them from his life. Yes, I cried…but, it was still a little too clichéd.

In spite of the clichés, Allegiance remains extremely intelligent. Mr. Kuo, Mr. Acito, and Mr. Thione bookend the musical with tones of hope and redemption for the characters as well as the audience watching. The finale, entitled “Still A Chance,” left me sobbing with hope; there’s still a chance that we can change things, and it all started by watching this musical and learning more about our history.

Despite some melodramatic scenes and rushed plot points in Act II, I absolutely loved Allegiance. With its book, music and lyrics (Jay Kuo), direction (Stafford Arima), scenic and lighting designs (Donyale Werle and Howell Binkley, respectively), Allegiance comes together in a beautiful and masterful piece of theatre. It will surely go down in history as one of the most important Asian American theatrical pieces.

© 2016 by That Voice in my Head - Meagan Finlay

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