How much loyalty would you feel to your country after it summarily declared you an “enemy alien,” took your house and business and moved you to a distant “relocation camp?”
“Allegiance - A New American Musical” plays through Oct. 21 at the Old Globe Theatre, and explores that question as well as larger concepts like self-determination, betrayal, patriotism and family in the context of the evacuation and internment of Japanese Americans in camps after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
“Allegiance,” with well-crafted music and lyrics by Jay Kuo and book by Marc Acito, Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, has Broadway aspirations and from the look of it is well on its way. Kuo’s score is a major strength, with many songs based on traditional Japanese melodies, others distinctly American in sound and feel.
Donyale Werle’s stage decorations set the mood – a scrim showing a knotted rope spanning the length of a stage framed with angular pieces of rough-hewn wood, giving the impression of a wall or barrier.
This memory play, inspired by the experiences of actor George Takei (Sulu in “Star Trek”) and his family, begins and ends with a woman knocking on the elderly Sam Kimura’s door. She brings news of the death of his sister Kei (Lea Salonga) and a box of mementos she wanted him to have.
Sam (George Takei) is reluctant to be reminded of that sad time, but passes the torch to his young self, launching the story.
Sammy (Telly Leung) is the younger child of Tatsuo Kimura (Paul Nakauchi), for 20 years an artichoke farmer in Salinas. Sammy’s sister Kei has given up her own dreams in order to care for the family since their mother’s death years before.
Sammy is an outgoing child with political ambitions who has just won the election for class president. He’s planning for college and singing that he is “Going Places.”
But the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 changes the Kimuras’ world – and that of their Japanese American neighbors – forever, as the U.S. government decrees their removal to barbed wire-enclosed imprisonment in a remote relocation camp. They are deprived of their property and businesses and allowed to bring only what they can carry.
In the camp (at Wyoming’s Heart Mountain) they suffer further deprivations – privacy, rights and very nearly dignity – until the war is over. When the government decides internees need to sign a loyalty oath, it is not likely to go well for any who answer the wrong way.
This story is structured around Sammy and three people he meets at the camp: Mike Masaoka (Paolo Montalban), a camp leader who recruits Sammy to help him with the government’s work. Masaoka was a real person whose role in the camps remains controversial even today.
At one point, drafts being down and the military need for soldiers up, it was decreed that internees could volunteer for service. Many (including Sammy in this story) did just that, and the all-Nisei 442nd Regiment became the most decorated unit in the war.
Another important character is draft resister Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee), who takes another road – becoming a resistance leader – and falls in love with Sammy’s sister. And Sammy’s chance meeting with Quaker volunteer nurse Hannah Campbell (Allie Trimm) introduces a verboten mixed-race courtship.
Takei anchors the cast, playing two characters from the older generation: Sammy as an old man and Ojii-san, the kindly and philosophical grandfather of Sammy and Kei.
“Allegiance” joins the ranks of earlier shows “Parade” and “Scottsboro Boys” in turning a shameful episode from U.S. history into musical theater. It’s a tricky business, requiring a decision whether to concentrate on the horrors or the sadness of this most un-American action. “Allegiance” opts for the latter.
This is a polished production, with fine performances all around and Broadway veterans in the major roles. Salonga is stunning as Kei, with a gorgeous voice and a captivating stage presence.
Leung’s Sammy is just right as the hopeful young American trying to make things better for camp residents. Lee’s vocal power and acting chops make the firebrand resistance fighter Frankie both believable and fascinating.
Montalban has the most difficult assignment in portraying the controversial Masaoka, criticized by some for playing along with the government, but praised later for his efforts in securing reparations for the internees.
Trimm does a fine job in both acting and singing departments as the young volunteer Hannah.
Takei is a steadying influence on the whole enterprise, though certainly easier to like as Grandpa Ojii-san.
Donyale Werle’s set is extraordinary and includes several hand-designed shoji screens used in varying configurations. Howell Binkley’s lighting design is evocative, especially when combined with Darrel Maloney’s projections.
“Allegiance” tells a horrifying story in a most human and utterly engaging way. See the world premiere now.
“Allegiance – A New American Musical” plays through Oct. 28 at the Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.
Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.
For tickets, call 619-234-5623 or visit HERE.
To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.