Thursday, December 3, 2015

Ambitious, Flawed, and Still Captivating

Review: Allegiance

Lea Salonga, George Takei, and Telly Leung in Broadway's Allegiance

Broadway's much discussed season of diversity continues with Allegiance, the new musical by a trio of unknowns which tackles the weighty and shameful subject of the Japanese-American internment camps organized by the US government during the height of World War II. The xenophobic decision to round up all people of Japanese descent and force them into poorly maintained communal living quarters after the bombing of Pearl Harbor bears uncomfortable parallels to some current immigration discourse, and seeing that story dramatized makes for an unexpectedly moving night in the theatre. This is an important story that deserves to be told, although it is unfortunate the show's structural problems prevent it from telling said story as effectively as possible.

The problem with Allegiance is that it occasionally lets its lofty ideals overwhelm the character-driven narrative at its center. That story centers on Isamu "Sammy" Kimura, the son of an immigrant farmer who has struggled to live up to his father's high expectations. When the Kimura family is rounded up and sent to the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming, Sammy feels the best way to prove his people's loyalty is to enlist in the war effort, a move strongly opposed by both his father and his older sister Kei. As conditions at the camp worsen, Kei and her father become more and more involved in a protest movement Sammy sees as un-American, with the growing divide between family members illustrating the true cost of such inhuman treatment.

The show is partially inspired by star George Takei's experiences living in an internment camp as a young boy (Takei plays an older version of Sammy during the musical's framing device, and the character's grandfather during the bulk of the 1940s set scenes). To fully convey what life was like the in the camp, Allegiance crams a lot of plot into its runtime, some of which feels extraneous. The show subtly but clearly plays up the similarities between the US interment camps and the Nazi concentration camps, but subplots about poor air quality and a dying infant hang awkwardly between being too prominent to merely serve as background coloring and yet not developed enough to stand on their own. The show attempts to juggle a lot of themes - it is at once a coming of age story, family drama, military yarn, and examination of government sanctioned racism - but these disparate elements never feel quite in balance, making Allegiance more confused and less effective than it could be.

Composer/lyricist Jay Kuo and his co-bookwriters Marc Acito and Lorenzo Thione also never settle on a consistent tone for the show, or create especially smooth transitions between the numerous styles they experiment with. There are jarring tonal shifts from sweeping melodrama (the serious and dignified anthem "Gaman," which is Japanese for "endurance with dignity") to crowd pleaser (the jaunty but misplaced "Get in the Game") to razor-tongued satire (the whip smart "Paradise," which enumerates the many "pleasures" of camp life). In trying to be all things at once - character drama, important historical work, political satire, splashy Broadway musical - Allegiance never accomplishes anything to the best of its ability.

Which is a shame, as when the show keeps things in check it really does have a lot going for it. The story may be a tad predictable but it is also interesting, and all the characters are recognizably human with clearly defined (if occasionally clunky) narrative arcs. The satirical moments are fascinating juxtapositions of bouncy tunes with cutting lyrics, and though these select moments seem to come out of nowhere the authors would be foolish to cut them completely; if anything, extending that tone to other parts or the story would help strengthen the show's point of view. And the authors are clearly capable of acknowledging larger themes without letting them trample the narrative momentum, such as when the show pauses just long enough to acknowledge the profound effect the bombing of Hiroshima would have had on its characters without delving too deeply into an event which is largely outside the show's scope.

Like the writing, the staging varies wildly in its competence and effectiveness. At times Stafford Arima's work on Allegiance seems like Directing 101, with characters stiffly moving from place to place for no other reason than to provide visual variety. But just when you've written him off, Arima will come up with a refreshingly inventive sequence like the genuinely thrilling battle in the middle of Act II, which finds Sammy and his battalion on a suicide mission in France. Andrew Palermo's choreography draws from a sometimes limited movement vocabulary, but it gets the job done and he does manage to come up with some impressive-looking group numbers.

The performances are the most consistent part of Allegiance, with the leads and supporting cast turning in fine work. Telly Leung makes for a charismatic and compelling lead as Sammy, subtly shading the character's gung-ho enthusiasm with the weight of having always felt like a disappointment. Leung has played supporting roles in several previous Broadway shows, but his work here proves the fresh faced tenor has what it takes to be a star. Tony-winner Lea Salonga takes the potentially boring, milquetoast Kei and makes her an utterly fascinating, fully realized individual who in many ways provides the heart of the show. In prime voice, Salonga sings and acts her many solos with effortless conviction, giving a multi-faceted performance that fuses Kei's introverted demeanor with her deep-seated strength and determination. And George Takei shines in the dual roles of an elder Sammy and Ojii-chan, Sammy and Kei's sprightly and mischievous grandfather.

Allegiance should be applauded for its ambition in tackling such important, unusual subject matter and shining a light on this little-discussed chapter of US history, even if it must simultaneously be scolded for being a tad too rough around the edges. The problem with setting out to write an important work of theatre is that importance is not something that can be dramatized, and in trying to do just that Allegiance occasionally allows its well-meaning ideals to overwhelm the narrative at its core. Yet the show ultimately does more right than wrong, providing a story that speaks to an underserved segment of the theatergoing public while simultaneously providing plenty to think about for audience members of all racial backgrounds. Allegiance is many things, but it certainly isn't forgettable, and for that it should be commended.

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