“We’re at war with Italy but nobody’s putting Joe DiMaggio in a camp!”
This one chilling line from the Broadway musical “Allegiance” – screened last night by Fathom Events – sums up the central theme of this thought-provoking passion project helmed by George Takei.
The story, which opens in present day with an elder Sam (Takei) at odds with his sister Kei (Tony winner & two-time Disney princess Lea Salonga) over choices they made during World War Two and their time in the Japanese Internment Camp at Heart Mountain in Wyoming. We are then taken back to 1941 and the summer prior to the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. Takei’s role then shifts to that of his own grandfather, while Telly Leung assumes the role of the younger Sam. Christopheren Nomura plays Tatsuo, Sam’s father, a man clearly driving his children to be the best they can be and not at all supportive of his son’s desire to join the US Army.
The narrative quickly proceeds to Pearl Harbor Day and the aftermath on the Japanese Americans. Soon, there are visits by the FBI and eventually forced relocation. I was reminded of a line from Salonga’s Tony-winning Broadway debut “Miss Saigon” – “Their secret they can’t hide – it’s printed on their face.” The DiMaggio line asks the right question – why just the Japanese? If Italians were easier to spot, would they too have suffered the same fate? The show, based on the true life experiences of Star Trek’s George Takei during his time in an internment camp, asks difficult questions but like Takei himself, it is always positive and hopeful.
As the war progresses, the people living in the camps must continually fight for even the most basic rights, while two camps begin to assert themselves: those who wish to fight FOR the country and those who wish to fight against it and protest their incarceration. I would have liked to see the conditions shown in a little more accurate detail. It’s hard to believe that the clothes worn during the dance, for example, were really that nice and it is more likely that they more resembled dirty rags as the time there progressed. The love stories are also a bit problematic, as I felt that they did feel a bit predictable and the device used in Act Two to cause a conflict between the two sets of lovers felt forced. That said, the payoff in the final minutes works well enough to almost make you forget the sloppy writing in other places.
There is much to like about this production, which sadly did not last long on Broadway. Takei and Salonga are outstanding, with the former delivering a heartfelt and sometimes hilarious performance in dual roles while the latter still has that dynamite voice that made her a breakout star as Kim in the original “Miss Saigon.” The supporting cast is also very good, with Michael K. Lee (as Frankie Suzuki) and Katie Rose Clarke (as Army Nurse Hannah) both standouts. The overall production values are also very good, with projections used to great effect especially in Act Two during the bombing of Hiroshima.
There were some issues with this presentation, though mostly technical. The biggest issue with the material itself is the score. While there are a few lovely melodies and memorable numbers, there are times where the show seems to be unable to decide if it wishes to be a book musical or sung-through. It is during these attempts to sing narrative that it falls flat or feels clunky. The score is at its best during Salonga & Clarke’s Act Two duet “Stronger than Before” and the fun “I Oughta Go” when Clarke and Leung first meet at the hospital.
The audio mix of the broadcast certainly didn’t do the score any favors, with the music and dialogue being forced into the center channel speakers at my showing with only the (clearly canned) applause from the audience using the much-needed surround sound speakers. The relegation of the main audio to the center (behind the screen) speakers made the music seem bloated during the choral numbers and made lyrics hard to understand at these times. The filmed version could definitely benefit from some audio sweetening before being presented on DVD or in encore performances. There was also an odd echo during the final minutes that was a bit distracting. I feel like it might have been an effect in the theatre that didn’t translate well to the big screen but it needs fixing.
It is a shame that this show did not find a broader audience and it is not necessarily the subject that many people wish to tackle during a night out…but it is as relevant as ever and a story that needs to be told. Keep an eye out for encore showings or a DVD release – it is, even with its flaws, a show worthy of your time and a message that everyone should see so that we may ensure something like the events portrayed never happens again.
***1/2 out of *****
Music and lyrics by Jay Kuo
Book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione
Directed by Stafford Arima
A Fathom Events Presentation recorded live at the Longacre Theatre in January 2016
Photo: Lea Salonga as Kei and George Takei as Ojii-San in “Allegiance”