Creators of new musicals often don’t push themselves to achieve greatness. Settling for complacency and an easy buck (The Addams Family anyone?) has become far too fashionable in musical theatre. Fortunately, Allegiance, which is currently having its world premiere at the Old Globe in San Diego, doesn’t fall into that category. But in striving for something epic and original, the show’s creators may have bitten off more than they can chew.
Set in America on the heels of the Pearl Harbor Attack, Sammy (Telly Leung), his sister Kei (Lea Salonga), their father Tatsuo (Paul Nakauchi) and grandfather Ojii-San (George Takei) are rounded up and put in an internment camp. Sammy, who had dreams of being President one day, is inspired by Mike Masaoka (Paolo Montalban) to become a camp leader and show that Japanese Americans are no threat to the US. Masaoka’s plans include serving the military. Sammy signs up against his father’s wishes and the pleading of Frankie (Michael K. Lee) who thinks fighting for freedom while their families are detained in a camp to be the height of hypocrisy.
That just scratches the surface of this vast musical, which is as ambitious as Les Misérables but ultimately more satisfying. I never thought the internment of Japanese-Americans would be the subject of a musical. But who thought the French revolution would be either?
Composer Jay Kuo, who co-wrote the book with Marc Acito and Lorenzo Thione, was inspired to write Allegiance after meeting Mr. Takei in a Broadway theatre. Mr. Takei briefly described his own internment and thus this show’s beginning. It is the music, however, that lacks an identity. “Going Places” sounds like a Sondheim song; “Higher” sounds like a Frank Wildhorn power ballad, and you can hear multiple influences in most of the songs. “Paradise,” a very cynical song performed by Mr. Lee, is the best of the bunch.
Dramatically, the show is very sound--even if it tries to do too much. It’s bookended by scenes set in present day where we are first introduced to a very old Sammy (also played by Mr. Takei.) For most of the show I couldn’t figure out the purpose of this device, but if nothing else it gives Mr. Takei a brilliant couple of scenes and he is mightily impressive. There were not many dry eyes in the house. Mr. Leung, who blew me away with his cabaret show at the Magic Castle, is just as memorable here. Ms. Salonga (who won a Tony Award for Miss Saigon) still knows how to drain every ounce of emotion from a song.
I applaud Allegiance for being as daring as it is. Perhaps in subsequent productions this show will be honed and new songs will be added, making the show truly special.
[Photo by Henry DiRocco]