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Review: Daring Musical ALLEGIANCE Tells Of Racism and Loyalty During World War II

In a Broadway season that is shaping up as one to feature far more diversity on stage than what is typically seen, it's wonderful to see a new, original and daring musical drama like Allegiance come to town in a high-profile production with a predominantly Asian cast playing out a history lesson about institutionalized racism in America.

Lea Salonga and George Takei (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Inspired by the childhood memories of its biggest name star, actor and social activist George Takei making his Broadway debut, Allegiance is primarily set inside the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, one of the internment camps where a total of 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent were forcibly detained during World War II, on the chance that some of them may be sympathizers working on behalf of the Japanese Empire.

Bookwriters Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione do a fine job in voicing the multiple issues involved with the situation with Rodgers and Hammerstein earnestness, and director Stafford Arima's production eschews extravagance to focus on the human story, but Allegiance, while well-crafted and professionally mounted, lacks a score that meets the emotional demands of its subject. While audience members may certainly be moved to tears to see such a tragic episode in American history depicted before them, Kuo's didactic, perfunctory lyrics and bland music are dramatically uninspired.

The musical is bookended by scenes set on Pearl Harbor Day, 2001, where Takai plays a fictional World War II veteran, Sam Kimura. A military hero whose photo graced a Life Magazine cover, Sam, along with all other Japanese-Americans, was initially rejected when volunteering to enlist at the war's commencement, but was eventually allowed to serve in an all Japanese-American unit that was typically sent out on suicide missions in Europe. Some would call it a chance to prove their loyalty, others would call it a racist government's betrayal.

When the action moves back to December of 1941, the free-spirited younger Sam is played by the engaging and energetic Telly Leung, with Takei now playing the character's grandfather, Ojii-chan, a small role adding gentle humor and cultural philosophy.

When Sam and his family, which also includes his demanding father (Christopheren Nomura) and responsible sister, Kei (Lea Salonga), who is more of a parental figure since their mother's passing, are sent to Heart Mountain along with the rest of their northern California Japanese-American community, they're horrified to be ordered around at gunpoint by young soldiers and to endure culturally insensitive practices. The dusty air affects everyone's health, but prisoners only have access to minimal heath care while basic medical necessities are reserved for soldiers. Ojii-chan reminds his family of the Japanese word "gaman," meaning "endurance with dignity."

Telly Leung and Katie Rose Clarke (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Meanwhile, in Washington DC, Mike Masaoka of the Japanese-American Citizens League, played by Greg Watanabe as an ineffectual government puppet, advises his people to patiently cooperate and eventually develops the idea of distributing mandatory loyalty questionnaires to rid the camp populations of potential protestors when prisoners are deemed eligible to be drafted.

The musical's major conflict is between Sam and Kei. While the brother enthusiastically joins the army, believing that acts of heroism and loyalty by Japanese-Americans will win back his people's freedoms, Kei sides with those who resist the draft and becomes romantically involved with one of the movement's most vocal leaders, Frankie (charismatic Michael K. Lee), who says he will gladly fight for his country as soon as his people are given back the same rights as all other Americans.

Before he leaves for Europe, Sam gets involved with the camp's white nurse (Katie Rose Clarke), who is torn between the duties she is ordered to carry out and her compassion for the people imprisoned. While not depicted as being racist individuals, the camp's white male soldiers are seen pointing guns at unarmed inmates who don't directly follow their instructions and violently manhandling a draft protester who they see as a traitor. When the war is over they sing of their appreciation for their fellow citizen who did their patriotic duty for the war effort by being detained in the camps.

While Leung shines in his passionate and committed performance, Salonga's character is more of an introspective follower and her one solo ballad doesn't take advantage of the Tony-winning star's talents. Likewise the score of Allegiance never offers the story the unique emotional textures that can make musical theatre so gratifying. This is a great topic for a musical and the talented company plays it admirably, but Allegiance, while certainly not a bad theatre piece, is an underachieving one.

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