Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 8, 2015
Allegiance Book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione. Music and lyrics by Jay Kuo. Directed by Stafford Arima. Choreographed by Andrew Palermo. Music supervision, arrangements, and orchestrations by Lynne Shankel. Scenic design by Donylae Werle. Costume design by Alejo Vietti. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Kai Harada. Projection design by Darrel Maloney. Wig and hair design by Charles G. LaPointe. Make-up design by Joe Dulude, II. Cast: George Takei, Telly Leung, and Lea Salonga, Katie Rose Clarke, Michael K. Lee, Christòpheren Nomura, Greg Watanabe, Aaron J. Albano, Belinda Allyn, Marcus Choi, Janelle Toyomi, Dote, Dan Horn, Owen Johnston II, Darren Lee, Kevin Munhall, Manna Nichols, Rumi Oyama, Catherine Ricafort, Momoko Sugai, Sam Tanabe, Elena Wang, Scott Watanabe, and Scott Wise.
Marc Acito and Lorenzo Thione (book) and Jay Kuo (book and songs) have written exactly the kind of musical you'd expect about a topic that broaches no cogent public disagreement. They look at the issue from the one, safe side and carefully structure everything to reinforce the correct opinions that nearly all audience members will hold. The social acceptability even extends to the casting of George Takei, the erstwhile Star Trek actor and current Twitter-commentary phenom who with his family was put in the camps, lending a public authenticity to the enterprise. (The writers even go as far to thank him in a Playbill note.)
But none of this has been executed with any wit, color, or invention that may even partially obscure what they're going for. After the obligatory opening number ("Wishes on the Wind") that shows how the Kimura family have integrated their classical Japanese culture into their life in Salinas, California, Pearl Harbor is bombed, they're forced out of their homes, and shipped off to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming. There, they fight bravely but hopelessly against their white oppressors, struggling in and even dying from their desire to do what's right in the face of such wrongness until those who are left get out and have to face the additional horrors that readjusting to "ordinary" life inspires.
It's difficult, if not pointless, to dig much more into who they are or what they experience, as clarifying specificity is hardly the order of the day. Given the writers' aims, the first real song (after a prologue that sends Sammy careening back in time) for example, has to include lyrics like "Wishes on the Wind / Are wishes that we share / Not only for ourselves, but for / The ones we love / Who'll always be there," so we'll understand all too well what's stolen from these noble people, just as the first-act finale must reference their eternal, indomitable spirit with proclamations like "It's our time to rise / Walk through that hell / We will be heroes / with stories to tell." And what kind of statement would the evening be if there weren't a jubilant WWII victory song juxtaposed against the war's dark aftermath for the Japanese? (It is, however, performed by a white-male close-harmony trio rather than a white-female close-harmony trio, which I guess is marginally innovative.)
If it all sounds as crushingly boring as it is socially responsible, it is. Dramatic works in general predictably suffer from being forced into activism molds, because any instituted myopia drastically complicates (and perhaps impedes altogether) the process crafting people and situations that can be cared about on anything but a surface level. One wouldn't dispute the powerful liberal messages at the heart of Show Boat, South Pacific, The King and I, Fiddler on the Roof, or Cabaret, for example, but those hugely successful musicals are packed with imperfect characters, bad decisions, and shattering consequences that bring us to the story rather than shoving it in our faces. Even Salonga's star-making vehicle, Miss Saigon, not quite a patch on those other titles, offered deeper complexities than you get with Allegiance, where those for whom we are required to root seldom act considerably less than they are acted upon in ways we already despise going in.
That doesn't mean there's nothing to like. Kuo's tunes (as orchestrated by Lynne Shankel and musical directed by Laura Bergquist) and Donyale Werle's sets (augmented by Darrel Maloney's projections) are pleasantly, generically attractive; and Andrew Palermo's Asian-American-fusion choreography gives a nice lilt to Stafford Arima's otherwise stuffy production. Salonga fans will relish her belty Act I number "Higher," which is as close a thing there is to a musical highlight (though the lyrics, which include platitudes like "I'll fly / Get back on that swing / Higher / Soaring higher than anything," are best ignored); and within the strictures, she, Leung, Lee, and Clarke give committed, well-sung performances that bespeak Broadway professionalism. Takei is too one-note to approach them, but he provides the gravitas and the amusement he needs to, which is good enough for his roles.
The show that surrounds him, alas, is not, at least for anyone who thinks that what a musical says is not alone sufficient reason to justify its existence. It may introduce a new generation of Americans to a chapter of history we cannot afford to forget, but books and documentaries can do that, and probably with more verve and passion than Acito, Thione, and Kuo have been able to muster. If nothing else, I suppose it is noteworthy for introducing the Japanese word "gaman," which means "endurance with dignity" and is as fine a description as any of what those interned within our own borders 70 years ago had to go through to survive an unthinkable ordeal. If only Allegiance could retain its own obvious dignity without being an endurance test of a very different kind.