During World War II, 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes in California, Washington and Oregon and enter internment camps. It's a heady subject for a musical, and one handled with surprising deftness in this powerful new musical Allegiance at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.
The book, by Jay Kuo, Lorenzo Thione, and Marc Acito, follows the travails and triumphs of the Kimura family, three generations of farmers in 1941 Salinas until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor changes their lives.
The action, however, begins in San Francisco on Pearl Harbor Day 2001 as septuagenarian Sam (George Takei) dons his military outfit and medals. A woman appears at his door with news that his sister Kei (Lea Salonga), who he has not seen in over 50 years, has died and left him a box of mementos.
The show flashes back to the family's internment at Heart Mountain in Wyoming, which is a hardship for all. They are living in one room, with communal latrines and mess halls, and forbidden use of anything remotely Japanese, even wind chimes. When the family's father feels he can not truthfully answer the question on the U.S. Government's Loyalty Questionnaire asking him to forswear allegiance to the Emperor, when he had never given it, he is sent to the harsh Tule Lake Segregation Camp.
The young Sammy (Telly Leung) meanwhile becomes a camp organizer for the controversial Japanese American Citizens League, eventually joining the Army as part of the all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team. He also finds himself attracted to sympathetic young Quaker nurse Hannah (Allie Trimm), while Kei becomes romantically involved with rabble rouser Frankie (Michael J. Lee), who is eventually arrested for refusing to be drafted into the army while his family remains in the camps. Meanwhile their grandfather, Ojii-San (Takei), tries to maintain a garden in the harsh terrain of Wyoming.
However, when a wounded Sammy returns from the war – a hero for leading a suicide battalion mission that saw the loss of 800 Japanese-American men to rescue 200 lost American soldiers – he finds his family is not how he left them, and eventually makes a decision that has unfortunate consequences.
There is a lot of story to cram into two hours, and the writers still need to refine their work. Kuo's score ranges from lyrical Japanese melodies to Big Band, Boogie Woogie and power ballads. The only really wrong note is "442 Victory Swing" which is sung by the suicide battalion right before their big battle.
Donyale Werle's wood fence and shoji screen scenic design (aided by Darrel Maloney's moody projection design) easily morphs into the countless scenes. Howell Binkley's lighting and Jonathan Deans' sound are superb, but Alejo Vietti's costumes are less effective, especially with the female cast members in seamless stockings and high heels for much of the action.
Under Stafford Arima's fine direction, the cast makes the most of the material. Takei (whose real-life story inspired the show) provides the steel spine of the production, while giving a heartfelt performance. Leung is energetic and vibrant as Sammy, while Lee gives a powerhouse performance as Frankie and delivers the satirical "Paradise" with panache.
But the heart and soul of the show is the touching performance of Salonga, who shines in her many duets with Leung and belts her one solo "Higher" out of theater. She also brings her patented brand of star power when it is really needed, but doesn't pull the focus from her character or her co-stars.