Re-tooled ‘Allegiance’: Passion, power but flawed

Ron Domingo, Gary Thomas Ng, Sam Tanabe and Grace Woo in “Allegiance.” Photo: Nile Scott Studios.

BOSTON – The musical “Allegiance” is a passion project.

One of its earliest supporters was the Japanese-American actor George Takei, of “Star Trek” fame who starred in the Broadway run and a recent Los Angeles run.

He played the patriarch of the Kimura family that is at the center of the story portraying the forced internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and how it helped destroy what was a close-knit family.

The production now at the Speakeasy Stage Company is described as “more intimate” than the one that played on Broadway to mixed reviews, and while it is both passionate and powerful, it is flawed and still has the feel of an unfinished piece.

In an interview, Takei said he worked closely with the creative team of composer and lyricist Jay Kuo and book writers Kuo, Marc Acito, and Lorenzo Thione to develop the story, using the research of the Japanese American National Museum as well as his own memories, when he was five years old and he and his family were interned.

“Allegiance” works best an a history lesson, but if you call it that, then you have to note the writers have taken liberties – in some cases great liberties – with the facts surrounding the internment, in an effort to further dramatize the story.

Musicals “based on” historic events are not held to the same standard as, say, documentaries or newspaper stories. Thione, who was also one of the producers of the Broadway run, went so far as to say “It’s as much about the Japanese-American internment as ‘Miss Saigon’ is about the Vietnam War.”

The fact is that the U.S. Government in the days after Pearl Harbor embarked on the forced internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans, depriving them of their freedom and in many cases their property and jobs, herding them into relocation centers, often far from their homes.

Michael Hisamoto as Mike Masaoka in “Allegiance.” Photo: Nile Scott Studios

The internment was eventually ruled illegal and unconstitutional and remains a shameful period in American history.

As “Allegiance” opens in San Francisco in 2001, an elderly Sam Kimura (Gary Thomas Ng) is informed of the death of his sister Kei, whom he has not seen in decades.

It then flashes back to the Kimura family farm in Salinas, Calif., in 1941. A younger Sam Kimura (Sam Tanabe) has just graduated from college, and the family includes Kei (Grace Yoo), who has helped raise him since their mother died in childbirth, father Tatsuo (Ron Domingo) and grandfather/patriarch Ojii-chan (Ng, in a double role)

After Pearl Harbor and President’s Roosevelt’s announcement, the family is forced to sell their farm and possessions for pennies on the dollar and evacuate to Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming in communal housing. without the niceties of running water or their own kitchen.

They struggle to adjust; Sammy finds a kindly soul in Quaker nurse Hannah Campbell (Melissa Geerlof), and their taboo relationship slowly grows in the camp, as does Kei’s with Tyler Simahk as Frankie Suzuki, the would-be lawyer who is snatched from law school and his parents arrested.

Frankie courts Kei and eventually emerges as a leader of resistance to the drafting of Japanese-Americans into the Army, saying none should fight until their full rights as citizens are restored.

That puts him ion the crosshairs of Sammy, who feels that he must enlist in the famed 442nd Nisei Battalion to prove the worth and loyalty of Japanese-Americans, possibly leading to the end of the internment. Their standoff results in an estrangement that will split the family.

Alas, in the showcase role of Sammy Tanabe struggles to match the passion of either Woo or Simahk.

While the score is often pedestrian, there are moments of true inspiration and tenderness, including “Higher,” beautifully performed by Woo as Kei. There are other voices that rise to the occasion, most notably Simahk’s.

Then there’s the pitiful presence of Mike Masaoka, smartly played by Michael Hisamoto, who recently starred in Lyric Stage’s “Hold These Truths.” Masaoka urged Japanese-Americans to go along with many of the internment measure , and was viewed by most of his brethren as a stooge of the government

He tries to defend the erosion of civil liberties and asks that “everyone remain calm and trust in the fairness of the American way.”

The resisters feel the same as Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Ilyse Robbins’ choreography injects some snappy wartime Andrews Sisters’ fun into some of the production numbers, and complements the traditional Japanese choreography by Kendyl Yokohama.

One of the other major sticking points in “Allegiance” is how the piece often resorts to cliches in its zeal to tell the story. The character of Hakujin (Ryan Mardesich), Japanese for a white person, represents every U.S. soldier portrayed in “Allegiance. “

Whenever he appears, Hakujin is a brutal , unfeeling, violent lout – even when he is portrayed in locations where there was no actual military presence. As the son of a recently-deceased World War II vet who served honorably, it struck me as broad stereotyping and I’m sure I’m not the only one it grated against.

Speakeasy Artistic Director Director Paul Daigneault brings his considerable skills to bear on the piece, but even he can’t completely shore up the weakest points.

There have been several fine works on the Japanese-American internment that have graced local stages, and at the very least they have educated theater-goers about an issue they had never known about, had forgotten about or chosen to forget. It is good we learn and remember, so something like it never happens again.

The Speakeasy Stage Company production of “Allegiance.” Book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione. Music and lyrics by Jay Kuo. Directed by Paul Daigneault. Scenic design by Eric Levenson. Costume design by Miranda Kau Giurleo. Lighting design by Daniel H. Jentzen. Sound design by Andrew Duncan Will. Props design by Abby Shenker. Music direction by Matthew Stern. Choreography by Ilyse Robbins. Additional choreography by Kendyl Yokoyama. In the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts through June 2.

Sam Tanabe and Ron Domingo in Speakeasy Stage’s “Allegiance.” Photo: Nile Scott Studios