Can one make an upbeat musical about a very sad page in American history, our inhumane treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II? These innocent people were treated like prisoners of war, robbed of their homes and trapped in what amounted to concentration camps. Not much to sing about there. ALLEGIANCE, with a book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thorne and music and lyrics by Jay Kuo, tries to do this with mixed success. The musical model was obviously the Boubil-Schoenberg score for LES MISERABLES. I don't dislike Boubil-Scoenberg's collaborations as much as some of the New York critic do, so I can't automatically fault Kuo for his choice of styles. The score is tuneful and energetic and never gets syrupy like the weakest moments in LES MIZ. The banal lyrics are the problem.
The central character is Sam Kimura, played as an old man by George Takei and in flashback (the bulk of the show) by Telly Leung. Sam is a rebellious young man who lives with his traditional, authoritarian father (Christpher Nomura), his lovable old grandfather (Takei again) and his sister Kei (Lea Salonga), who has had to act like a mother to him (his mother died in childbirth). When the family is sent to an internment camp in Wyoming, Sammy falls in love with a white nurse (taboo back then), and idealistically decides that the one thing that will redeem his people is if young Japanese-Americans like him battle for America in the war. His nemesis is a young firebrand Frankie (Michael K. Lee) who starts an anti-draft movement in the camp. after all, why should these ill-treated prisoners die for the US, which is treating them so badly? Of course, Sammy's sister falls in love with Frankie. Sammy's father refuses to sign an oath of loyalty to the US and is imprisoned. Sammy cuts off all relations with his sister. My problem with ALLEGIANCE is that my sympathies were with Frankie and Sammy's father, not with Sammy, whom I thought was naive and intolerant of the anger felt by the internees. Sammy becomes a war hero, an image of the patriotic Japanese-American, but he seems blind to the nasty racism he and his fellow Japanese-Americans have suffered.
Stafford Arima has directed a lovely, well paced production. Donyale Werle's sets are simple but effective, lit beautifully by Howard Binkley. The cast is uniformly excellent. Takei is charming, of course. Lea Salonga's voice is still a thing of beauty. Telly Leung makes on care about Sammy, even though he's a bit sanctimonious. The rest of the cast is fine.
FUN HOME and HAMILTON have set an almost impossibly high standard for new musicals. ALLEGIANCE is not quite up to that standard, but it's well worth seeing for the performances, the music and the important, if shameful piece of American history it dramatizes.