Allegiance, which opens Sunday at the Longacre Theatre, illuminates a dark spot in American history that school curricula (mine, at least) tend to gloss over, bringing to life the tragedy of the World War II internment camps for Japanese-American citizens. Watching the events play out on stage is painful: young, California-born Japanese-Americans racing to enlist after Pearl Harbor, only to be turned away; a neighbor of 20 years entreating Tatsuo Kimura (Christòpheren Nomura) to sell his farm, worth $20,000, for $2,000; the helplessness of men to protect their families.
This last feeling is what provided the genesis for Allegiance, which premiered in 2012 at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre. Writers Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione sat next to George Takei (Star Trek) at a production of In The Heights, and Takei wept at the struggles of the immigrant father, whose feelings of uselessness reminded him of his own father when Takei and his family were in the internment camps themselves. Kuo and Thione were inspired; and Allegiance became the first Broadway musical by Asian-Americans, starring Asian-Americans, and about Asian-Americans.
Though the story is inspired by Takei’s, it’s fictional: We follow Sammy Kimura (a charismatic Telly Leung) a strong-jawed, all-American boy, who is rounded up with his sister Kei Kimura (Tony winner Lea Salonga, in her triumphant return to Broadway after an eight-year absence), father Tatsuo (Nomura), and ailing grandfather (Takei), and taken to the camp at Heart Mountain in Wyoming. While Sammy — like “Uncle Sam,” one of the play’s many subtle parallels — wants to stand up, fight, and prove loyalty to his country, Tatsuo and Kei urge him to keep his head down: “Do not fight the storm.” He falls in love with the military nurse, Hannah Campbell (Katie Rose Clarke), holds dances to boost morale, and eventually gets the chance to enlist. Back “home” in camp, others burn draft cards, refusing to sacrifice their lives for a country that treats them as the enemy. For his part, Tatsuo, sick of his own passivity, eventually takes a stand when the infamous loyalty questionnaires are distributed. In a brilliant move, others fold theirs into origami.
The heart of Allegiance, though, is its talented supporting cast: Not only do their voices add layers and harmonies to songs that otherwise sound largely the same, but playing the Japanese-Americans in the camps and briefly, the citizens of Hiroshima, they represent the sheer number of people affected. They are especially effective when standing still, frozen in disbelief, grief, shock. It can be easier, sometimes, to write off the tragedy of one family, but the chorus reminds us that this didn’t just happen to a few, but 120,000 people.
That’s not to say there aren’t lighter moments. Takei bookends the show playing a bitter, adult Sammy, but for the rest, his winking personality is used perfectly as Ojii-chan, Sammy and Kei’s loving grandfather — quick with a joke, and providing much-needed islands of levity amidst a sea of sadness. In fact, when it’s not threatening to rip your heartstrings out all together, Allegiance is quite entertaining, with 1940s dance numbers, nods to the Andrews Sisters, and bits of jazz influence. Even if it’s not 100 percent original all the time (hey, not everything can be Hamilton), Allegiance is an important show with a phenomenal cast, and it deserves to be seen. B+