Within months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans on the West Coast were ordered to leave their homes, jobs, even pets and “relocate” to bleak, often uninhabited areas inland. Given ten days at most to make the forced march, they were herded into “internment” camps run by the U.S. Army. They had no idea how long they’d stay or if they would ever return home.
“You never thought such a thing could happen,” said one. “You feel all tangled up inside because you do not quite see the logic of having to surrender freedom in a country that you sincerely feel is fighting for freedom.”
Allegiance: A New American Musical, in its world premiere at the Old Globe Theatre, attempts to tell the epic story of Japanese-American internment. The subject’s as huge as it is vital. Right now, Allegiance is, at best, an “important” musical. But it needs a great deal of rethinking and reshaping to become a good one.
The story begins just prior to the life-changing instant. The three-generation Kimura family — grandfather Ojii-san, father Tatsuo, and young Sammy and Kei — work on Tatsuo’s artichoke farm in Salinas. Just elected class president, Sammy sings “Going Places,” and things are looking up for everyone. Then, overnight, Tatsuo must sell the farm for a pittance. The family’s shipped by train, with the blinds drawn, to Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming (Japanese Americans from San Diego went to Poston, Arizona, a stone’s throw from nowhere).
They move into hastily built, absurdly cramped quarters — far more cramped, in fact, than the Old Globe set portrays — and try to make sense of an unfathomable alienation.
For at least its first 40 minutes, Allegiance sprints through one devastating event after another. The approach, exposition-by-shorthand, never gives the audience much time to grasp the enormity of what’s going on. Like “Going Places,” the songs are mostly generic and don’t fully underscore the emotional havoc. The one that does, “Gaman” (“enduring the unbearable with patience and dignity”), should ring through the theater the way “Tradition” does in Fiddler. Instead, it’s almost soft-sold.
Those first 40-plus minutes are thin, disparate strands. They, and the musical, come together when Frankie Suzuki (the outstanding Michael K. Lee) sings “Paradise.” It’s a show-bizzy, funny, satire of life at Heart Mountain — i.e., “paradise” — and it injects the note of defiance that will propel Allegiance to its conclusion.
The government ordered internees to sign a loyalty oath. Two questions became controversial: #27: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces? #28: Do you swear unqualified allegiance to the U.S.?
A large percentage answered “yes” to both. Anyone who answered “no” was declared disloyal (even those suspecting it was a “trap” question). Many, like Frankie Suzuki, said they’d gladly serve if their families were set free. Heart Mountain became the most vocal of the camps: 63 of its young men received a three-year sentence in a federal penitentiary for resisting the draft. At the time, few newspapers explained their actual reasons.
The internment was a blanket racist condemnation. Even “loyal” Japanese Americans were suspect. Once it gets going, Allegiance shows how diverse reactions were inside the camps. In many instances, the emotional pressures and cramped quarters caused families to quarrel. The loyalty oath rips these fissures into canyons. The internees break down generational lines: elders demand tradition; the suddenly disrespectful, even bullying teenagers want change (an almost unheard of attitude before WWII). The Kimura family becomes a microcosm of the camp’s inner divisions. And the title of the musical begins to resonate.
The book needs shoring up, as do one-note characters. No matter what Paolo Montalban tries with Mike Masaoka, the charismatic and controversial leader of the Japanese American Citizens League is so evil he’s a scapegoat for just about every tribulation.
One way to imagine what the musical still needs would be to take away its absolutely spectacular cast. The iconic George Takei as the elder, embittered Sam, and the grandfather Ojii-San, projects a grounded dignity that anchors the show (forget Star Trek; his career’s stellar without it). As does Paul Nakauchi, as the father, Tatsuo, who doesn’t get a song but who obviously has the chops. Young, going places Sammy Kimura is the best written role, and Telly Leung makes the most of it. From unstoppable idealism to blank disillusionment, Leung takes stage and traces the arc with conviction.
Okay, she’s here, and every rave you ever heard about Lea Salonga (Tony winner for Miss Saigon) is a fact. She plays Sammy’s soft-spoken sister Lei and makes an under-written role unforgettable when she sings “Higher” and “The Mountain’s Heart” (with Michael K. Lee). Her voice skies and swoops with effortless clarity.
These performers fill in many a gap and add serrations and subtexts to Jay Kuo’s often predictable songs. Along with turning up the decibels with “Gaman,” the score/book needs to register, early on, how unprecedented the relocation was. It hit like an undetected tsunami. Suddenly, everything became extreme, chaotic, life-threatening for over 120,000 Japanese Americans.
Donayle Werle’s scenic design could help here. At first it has a simple, austere beauty. Panels made from overlapping paper slide on and off. Darrel Maloney projects videos onto the beige and brown surfaces. One of the main tasks of the internees was to sew camouflage netting for the war effort. Werle includes these in her patterns as well.
The set is consistent. And that creates a problem. Except for the initial scene in the camp, which could be more cramped, the set has an open-air feel that detracts from the oppressive confinement. Werle rarely breaks up the earth-toned color scheme, even when the Kimuras are in San Francisco.
The set misses a golden opportunity. Photos of the first days at Poston and Heart Mountain show rows of structures amid treeless emptiness. Photographs three years later are almost unrecognizable: the internees turned each into an oasis of flowers, fruits and vegetables, and trees. When old Sam Kimura works his garden for the last time, Werle drops a camouflage net with just hints of color. But why not break up a unified design and project bolder hues for what, to many, is an enduring — and endearing — symbol of the relocation: from sterile terrain, the camps grew life. They greened those wastelands. ■
Allegiance: A New American Musical, music and lyrics by Jay Kuo, book by Marc Acito, Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione
Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
Directed and choreographed by Stafford Arima; cast: Michael K. Lee, Telly Leung, Paolo Montalban, Paul Nakauchi, Lea Salonga, George Takei, Allie Trimm; scenic design, Donyale Werle; lighting, Howell Binkley; costumes, Alejo Vietti; sound, Jonathan Deans; musical supervision, Lynne Shankel; choreographer, Andrew Palermo
Playing through October 21; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 8:00 p.m. 619-234-5623