The Broadway show Allegiance, starring George Takei and Lea Salonga, is about a time in American history we don’t like to talk about: That time we rounded up thousands of our own citizens and put them in concentration camps—sorry, “relocation centers”—while we were at war with an enemy who was also doing that. We stopped short of ethnic cleansing, but that doesn’t make our country’s actions okay. This play is loosely based on the experiences of an American who endured that injustice.
When Takei (of Star Trek fame) was a young child in the 1940s, he and his family were forced out of their home and sent to a camp in Arkansas. After refusing to fill out a patronizing loyalty questionnaire, they were transferred to the much harsher Tule Lake Relocation Center in California. Allegiance uses these events to tell the story of Sam Kimura, a young American whose traditional Japanese father wants him to go to law school; Sam isn’t too keen on the idea, thinking he’d rather serve his country in the Army. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Sam and a few friends try to prove their dedication by enlisting. They are denied. It doesn’t matter that they were born in California: “A Jap is a Jap,” they’re told.
The dehumanization of Japanese Americans worsens when Sam’s family gets shipped to Wyoming, where they must deal with choking dust, freezing temperatures and the absolute refusal of the U.S. government to provide proper heat and medicine. This kind of treatment obviously might make someone bitter or resentful toward his country, but Sam, like Takei, doesn’t feel that way. His desire to prove his commitment only increases, and he jumps at the first opportunity to enlist. But not everyone in the camp feels that way, most notably a law student named Frankie, who takes a liking to Sam’s sister, Kei.
By now, you probably have an idea of where all this is going, and my biggest criticism is of Allegiance’s predictable plot. For the most part, this isn’t a problem. The dramatic moments hit just as hard whether you know they’re coming or not; I just wish they were more surprising. The show still packs serious emotional weight. I’m not ashamed to admit that I teared up multiple times during the performance—and not just from the drama. The musical harmonies of the actors’ beautiful voices fill the theater with such a powerful sound, you almost forget the orchestra’s even there.
So Allegiance isn’t just set in the 1940s, it feels as if it were written back then, too. That’s (mostly) a good thing. The show perfectly captures the era’s style; many of the songs, by Jay Kuo, sound so much like classic Broadway show tunes, you may even doubt this is a new musical. But don’t forget that it’s a musical: If you’re seeing this because you’re a Takei fan or are interested in the history, you’ll still be satisfied, but if you aren’t big on Broadway tuners, this may not be the show for you.
Yes, many people will see Allegiance simply for Takei, who plays old Sam, and he doesn’t disappoint. His stage presence and gravitas fill the theater, and he commands audience attention whenever he’s onstage. He’s also not a bad singer, a nice surprise for some fans. But the real star of this show is Salonga as Kei Kimura. Holy crap. You’ve heard her on recordings of Miss Saigon and Les Miserables, and as the singing voice of Disney’s Mulan and Jasmine. If you haven’t seen Salonga perform live, however, go to see Allegiance right now. You can feel the emotion behind every note she sings, and watching her work onstage is mesmerizing.
Young Sam is also played very well by Telly Leung. He’s not the big draw that his costars are, but he rises to the challenge and never fails to show the audience why Sam thinks the way he does. Leung makes us root for the character even if we don’t agree with the choices Sam makes. That’s probably my favorite thing about this play: The protagonists’ disagreements tear a family apart, but neither is depicted as right or wrong. Frankie’s rebellion is just as understandable and justified as Sam’s need to prove his allegiance.
As the show’s Playbill reports of Takei’s real-life experiences in the camps, “Despite the injustices he and his family suffered, George harbors no resentment or anger.” Allegiance embodies that sentiment. It doesn’t soften what the U.S. did, but there’s no bitterness, either—neither toward the government nor any of the characters. Even with its flaws, Allegiance is a wonderful new American musical.
Allegiance is playing an open-ended run at the Longacre Theatre in New York City.
Photos: Courtesy of Matthew Murphy