BWW's Report from Austin's Sneak Peek of Broadway-Bound ALLEGIANCE
On Tuesday, September 3rd, a very selected audience of lucky Austinites were invited to a special invitation-only screening of a developmental production of the Broadway-bound musical, Allegiance, hoping to raise funds and support to further bring the show to the Broadway stage. I was lucky enough to attend, and while it may be unconventional for a theater critic to review or even comment on a piece they technically did not see live (what was shown in Austin was a professionally filmed version of the world premiere production of Allegiance at The Old Globe in San Diego, CA) the show is too good to ignore.
Allegiance begins with elderly war veteran Sam Kimura (George Takei) as he is forced to remember his past. As a young man (Telly Leung), Sam and his family suffer the Japanese American internment during World War II, an event that our country desperately tries to ignore. Sam tries to show that he is a loyal, patriotic American and even enlists in the army, while his father (Paul Nakauchi), sister (Lea Salonga), and others resist their unjust treatment by the U.S. government and the suggestions from the Japanese American Citizens League that they cooperate with the internment.
While the subject matter may not scream to be musicalized, the result is incredibly powerful, moving, and touching. The book by Jay Kuo, Lorenzo Thione, and Marc Acito brilliantly manages to keep the story universal and accessible to everyone. This is much more than a story of Japanese internment. This is an epic American story of resilience in the face of injustice, and one of the better ones at that. The decision to show various points of view and reactions to the internment-ranging from the patriotic to the revolutionary-is a smart one, as is the clear decision not to favor a point of view over another.
The score, with music and lyrics by Jay Kuo, is lovely and instantly memorable. Kuo's voice is a wonderful melting pot of various sounds. Some songs have a Sondheim-esque jaunt to them. Some have a more classic Rodgers and Hammerstein feel. Others borrow from 1940s jazz sounds or Japanese rhythms. While on paper the pieces shouldn't fit, on stage they do. What Kuo has written is the next great American musical, and several songs, particularly Salonga's ballad "Higher" are bound to become standards among theater lovers. It's also worth mentioning that after viewing the full film of the San Diego production, the audience also had the privilege of seeing approximately 20 minutes worth of footage from a recent New York lab of the show. The footage from the lab included a handful of new songs and some refinements to the book. While the San Diego version was already Broadway ready, the additions and changes, particularly the ballad "What Makes a Man," will undoubtedly enhance the show.The direction and staging by Stafford Arima is remarkably solid as well. The piece is both epic and personal, and as such Arima's direction oscillates seamlessly between the two. Some moments, particularly a sequence in which the bombing of Hiroshima is projected onto ensemble members standing in various pools of light, are visually stunning and pack an emotional punch, while others, such as smaller scenes between members of the Kimura family, feel like they'd fit just as well in a living room drama as they do here. And though Allegiance is a bit sparse when it comes to big dance-heavy production numbers, the choreography by Andrew Palermo is very impressive.
Arima's entire cast is perfection, though the trio of leads is the most memorable. While he may not have as much stage time as one would expect, George Takei is just as delightful as you a celebrated actor of his caliber should be. As Old Sam, Takei is able to pull off the emotional gravitas that is necessary to make this memory piece work, and as Ojii-San (grandpa for those of you who don't speak Japanese), he gives the show some humor and levity. As Kei, Sam's timid older sister, Lea Salonga gives a strong performance. Her voice is beautiful and pure, and she's at her best when she has something to sing. Sadly, the character doesn't have quite enough to do, though as one audience member mentioned, the clips from the recent New York lab suggest that the rewrites have rendered a "feistier" Kei. It's safe to assume the role has been refined and expanded, and it will be interesting to see what Salonga will do with her added material when (it's not an if; it's a when) this show gets to Broadway. But the strongest performance comes from Telly Leung. While Leung has quite a few Broadway credits, he's never had a leading role, and this character and his performance could make him the next big thing on Broadway. Leung's voice is strong, but his acting is even better. With his enthusiasm and energy, it's hard not to focus on Leung whenever he's on stage, and the plucky, innocent, optimistic character of Sam fits him well.
The major downside to seeing a production on film rather than in person is the suspicion that you've missed something. But even when seen on a movie screen instead of a traditional stage, Allegiance is a haunting and impactful piece of theater that deserves to be seen on Broadway. This is the next great original American musical, and I hope that the cast and creative team have their Tony speeches ready. Fans and critics will be pledging allegiance to this spectacular musical.