The traumatic story of America’s World War II concentration camps arguably seemed a far more distant and settled history in November 2015, when Allegiance premiered on Broadway. The musical retelling by composer-lyricist Jay Kuo (with a book by Kuo, Marc Acito and Lorenzo Thione) of what is euphemistically called the “Japanese-American internment” opened to indifferent reviews and then closed after three months.
But with the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the administration's divisive mainstreaming of alt-right white supremacist hate groups, Allegiance’s sprawling and sometimes unwieldy tale of how the United States summarily stripped 120,000 Japanese-Americans — including 37,000 Angelenos — of their civil rights and incarcerated them in 10 prison camps for the duration of the war today seems harrowingly near. And if Trump isn’t exactly on the Aratani Theatre stage, it’s hard not to watch this sparkling new production by East West Players and the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center with a newfound sense of foreboding and urgency. What is surprising is the degree of warmth and optimism that a top-flight ensemble, including veterans of the Broadway run, brings to it.
Much of that credit goes to star George Takei, whose very presence onstage as a real-life camp survivor can’t help but charge a story about the resilience of a people with a veracity and dignity that would be hard to otherwise imagine. Takei opens the evening as the haunted, gravel-voiced WWII veteran Sam Kimura, who receives word of the death of his long-estranged sister, Kei (the marvelous Elena Wang), on Pearl Harbor Day in 2001. And it is in the ensuing flashback, where he reappears as the aged Kimura family patriarch, Ojii-chan, whose indomitable if impish spirit anchors the family through the humiliations and outrages of their four-year ordeal, where Takei most shines.
The evening's focus, however, is on the young Sammy (played with brio by Ethan Le Phong) and Kei, the Nisei Kimura siblings who suddenly find their futures and expectations violently shattered by the attack on Pearl Harbor. In quick succession, the family is declared enemy aliens, forced to sell their farm to a white neighbor for pennies on the dollar and shipped to the bleak remoteness of Wyoming’s Heart Mountain relocation camp, represented by designer Se Hyun Oh’s minimalist framework set and Adam Flemming’s archival photo projections.
The indignities of camp life — its communal latrines, woefully inadequate health care and oppressive and heavy-handed treatment of internees by armed military police guards (the show’s multiple “Hakujin” heavies are played to nefarious effect by Jordan Goodsell) — quickly begin to open up generational and ideological fractures as the general camp population becomes polarized over the injustice and the question of forming an all–Japanese-American regiment to join in the war effort. The Kimuras themselves are drawn into the conflict when the pro-enlistment Sammy begins a romance with Hannah (Natalie Hold MacDonald), a sympathetic white army nurse, and Kei falls in love with the anti-enlistment dissident leader Frankie (Eymard Cabling).
But the real break comes with the notorious loyalty questionnaire that camp authorities issue as a prerequisite to joining the military. That’s when Tatsuo Kimura (Scott Watanabe), the siblings’ passively assimilationist father, joins with the dissidents by refusing to declare his loyalty and is promptly shipped off with Frankie to the brutal maximum-security penal facility at Tule Lake. For his part, Sammy goes to Europe to fight with the legendary 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
It’s ultimately a lot of history to pack into a 150-minute evening. But Kuo’s lively, 26-tune songbook (with flawless musical direction by Marc Macalintal), which mixes contemporary ballads, period swing-dance numbers (courtesy of choreographer Rumi Oyama) and even accents of traditional Japanese music, manages to hit all of its dramatic marks. It also provides a powerful showcase for Elena Wang, whose soaring vocals turn her solos on aspirational anthems like “Higher” or wistful numbers like “Wishes on the Wind” into certifiable show-stoppers.
Director Snehal Desai’s taut and surprisingly compact production rarely flags (his staging of the 442nd's bloody battle scenes are particularly compelling), but if the sheer velocity of the narrative can occasionally seem dizzying, Allegiance manages to deliver its share of sobering historical eye-openers. One is the role played in the incarceration by the show’s other heavy, Mike Masoaka (Greg Watanabe in an effectively ambiguous performance), the controversial head of the Japanese American Citizens League, whose policy of collaboration with the War Relocation Agency has left deep scars in the Japanese-American community to this day. Whether or not a show tune–heavy, conventional book musical is the right vehicle to heal those scars, the lesson it delivers is one that all Americans would do well to heed.
Aratani Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St., Little Tokyo; through April 1. (213) 680-3700, allegiancemusical.com.
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