Review: George Takei Returns to “ALLEGIANCE” for Its Superb Los Angeles Premiere

Michael L. Quintos

  • Associate Los Angeles Theatre Critic

Looking back at our country’s complex and storied history, there are certainly many great moments of triumph and innovation that, as citizens, we can all be extremely proud about. Unfortunately, our history is also littered with many shocking, abhorrent events and practices that, in hindsight, were completely wrong and disgraceful, even if it began as a supposedly “good” solution to a supposedly “bad” situation. Much of the time, such things occur out of sheer fear—exacerbated by prejudice—prompting a swift reaction that apparently serves as a preemptive strike against a supposed danger.

Ideally, we as a nation all hope that we can continue to learn from such past mistakes and overreactions—enough to never ever repeat them again… though judging by how sadly divided our country is currently, many people may not have evolved their thinking after all.

One of the most inconceivably racist and, remarkably, still little-known devastating occurrences from America’s history happened soon after the tragic bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii executed by the Empire of Japan. With thousands of lives lost on that horrific day, America became understandably angry, and it found itself finally and truly involved in the Second World War—siding with the Allied nations bent on stopping the forward momentum of the Nazis in Europe and the Empire of Japan in Asia.

Out of that anger came a visceral, knee-jerk reaction from the federal government, swathed in an unfair and unfounded generalization about an entire race of people (wow, that certainly sounds familiar).

Fearful that all Japanese-Americans—whether or not they were born here or in Japan—were still “loyal” to the Japanese Empire that just attacked an American city and its military fleet, the U.S. government enacted a swift and ill-thought decree that rounded up nearly all people of Japanese descent living in the West Coast of the United States, stripped them of their homes, possessions, and livelihoods, then forcibly incarcerated them into internment camps stretched across multiple, isolated outposts located hundreds of miles away from their original homes.

In its wake, whole communities were ripped apart, families were forced to share cramped living spaces with other families, and an entire citizenry were, in essence, “dropped off and left to rot” in deplorable living conditions—the complete opposite of the American Dream they’ve strived so hard to achieve.

One such internment camp was located in middle-of-nowhere Wyoming at the foot of Heart Mountain—the location that serves as the main backdrop for the original stage musical “ALLEGIANCE,” which is currently finishing up the remaining performances of its Los Angeles premiere production by East West Players at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center’s Aratani Theatre through April 1, 2018.

Inspired by this true and unfortunate episode in U.S. history, this emotionally-compelling musical explores one specific family’s harrowing experience trapped within the barbed-wire fencing of their forced incarceration and the long-term—and long-lasting—after-effects that followed.

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Personally speaking, this superb L.A. production—admirably directed by East West Players’ own artistic director Snehal Desai—is now the third iteration of the show I have seen. Prior to seeing this Aratani Theatre production, I was in the audience for the opening night performance of the show’s first full production at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego in 2012. Later, I saw the musical’s 2015 Broadway production when it was screened in movie theaters the following year.

I must say that between that first production in San Diego and now this new, more compactly efficient production in Little Tokyo, “ALLEGIANCE” has become, for me, more searing and emotionally impactful compared to those earlier iterations.

While the show, despite some well-intentioned rejiggering, certainly retains the musical’s fair share of narrative flaws and even a few songs that feel a tad too ill-fitting, overall, East West’s iteration—staged in a slightly more “intimate” environment that brings its story to a closer proximity to its rapt audience—is a beautifully-performed and winningly-presented production that valiantly attempts to put a well-deserved spotlight on one of American history’s most shameful occurrences—an occurrence that we all need to pay close attention to, particularly as a comparison to today’s uneasy climate, and that, perhaps, we should heed it as a precautionary tale.

Against the larger backdrop of the Japanese-American internment program, “ALLEGIANCE” mostly focuses its soapy melodrama on the Kimura family and the ramifications of their incarceration. When the musical opens, it is 2001 in San Francisco, where we meet aging military vet and decorated war hero Sam Kimura—played with heartbreaking gravitas by Star Trek’s George Takei—dressed in military garb as he readies himself for yet another Pearl Harbor anniversary commemoration.

The curmudgeonly old man has just received some bad news from a stranger at his door: his long-estranged sister Kei has just passed away. Many decades have passed since he and his sister have spoken, and this news of her death suddenly jogs old memories of love, pain, resentment, and pride that have apparently continued to haunt and upset him to the present day.

The musical then flashes back to 1941, set in the town of Salinas, California where a more chipper, much younger Sam (played by the excellent Ethan Le Phong) lives on a farm with his older sister Kei (beautifully rendered by the spectacularly-voiced Elena Wang), his widowed father Tatsuo (the stirring Scott Watanabe), and Sammy and Kei’s fun-loving and wise grandfather Ojji-chan (played also by Takei).

As we observe the Kimura siblings, we notice quickly that the two are basically best friends as well: Sammy truly idolizes Kei, while Kei truly adores her younger brother and only want what’s best for him—so much so that she has long since put her own aspirations on indefinite hold to help her dad raise her younger brother after their mother passed away giving birth to Sammy. That devastating latter detail, naturally, has always hung a pall on Sammy, which has convinced him for years that his overly judgmental father has always resented Sammy for causing the loss of his father’s wife. For his part, Sammy has tried several different ways to make his father proud of him, including being a superstar student.

Despite this loaded backstory, the Kimuras live relatively happy lives, particularly in their ongoing pursuit of the American dream and their enjoyable fellowship with other similarly content Japanese-American families in their neighborhood. But all those smiles soon begin to fade as news of the Pearl Harbor bombing on December 7, 1941 enacted by their homeland sends everyone—including the Kimuras—into panic mode. Although they have fully embraced life in the U.S. and are, at their core, tried and true Americans themselves, their ethnicity, they feel, automatically makes them guilty by association of, perhaps, harboring similar sentiments that the combative Japanese Empire has towards America.

Well, apparently, the U.S. government had those same assumptions, too.

And thus began, soon after in 1942, the forced relocation and open-ended detainment of Japanese-Americans in the West into mass internment camps. Mike Masaoka, the polarizing head of the Japanese American Citizens League (played by the outstanding Greg Watanabe, also reprising his role from Broadway), audaciously declares that this forced relocation is essentially a Japanese-American person’s “way to contribute to the war effort.” Yikes.

For the Kimuras, this sudden life change meant having to sell their farm at a severe markdown in order to get even a little something before they left their lives behind. They along with several of their neighbors ended up getting “placed” at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, where they are forced to share living quarters with other families—with no walls, doors, or even make-shift partitions to separate them from one another. It’s tough to watch seeing these people stripped of their personal freedoms.

Camp life is a heartbreaking, dehumanizing existence for all: communal, filthy bathroom facilities, limited food and supplies, lack of access to healthcare, and combative, unfeeling, and blatantly racist white military personnel charged with policing the camps (all personified by Jordan Goodsell, tasked to portray pretty much every white male that appears in the show, bless him).

Many in the camp, though, are still hopeful that their stay here is a temporary brief one, so they try to make the best of their terrible situation by organizing “fun” in-camp activities such as baseball games, social gatherings and dances, and the planting of gardens even in inhospitable soil—that, hopefully, won’t piss off the guards too much.

They evoke (and, well, sing) the idea of “Gaman”—a term that says they must endure and persevere through the seemingly unbearable things in life with patience and tolerance. Well… in here, that’s easier sung than done—and soon those little glimmers of hope begin to dim as the harsh conditions of the camp become their daily, inescapable reality.

And yet, somehow in the midst of these awful living situations, romances manage to bloom.

Sammy has a meet-cute that turns into a secret interracial relationship with the pretty and kindly white nurse at the camp, Hannah (Natalie Holt Macdonald), while the more wound-up Kei is courted by her opposite, rabble rouser Frankie Suzuki (Eymard Cabling), the camp’s irrepressibly vocal advocate for detainee rights, who (natch) later becomes the leader of the resistance faction that forms inside the camp that, among other complaints, refuses to comply with the military draft that has been forced on them: to fight in the war front lines in Europe on behalf of the country that so unfairly incarcerated them.

Meanwhile back in Washington DC, Mike Masaoka vocally supports another well-meaning but detestably controversial practice of cooperating with the federal government by urging Japanese citizens—as a placating show of unwavering loyalty to the U.S.—to willingly rat out any “disloyal” Japanese person they observe and to also personally pledge their allegiance solely to the United States, as stated in a manipulative “questionnaire” handed out to detainees.

“They lock us up… then ask for our loyalty?” questions one camp resident. He’s got a point.

But to his father’s surprise, Sammy sides with Mike Masaoka, causing more conflict and a larger divide between father and son. Making matters worse, Tatsuo is jailed for refusing to swear his allegiance to America in the questionnaire, which automatically paints him guilty of having anti-American, pro-Japanese Empire viewpoints.

“An honorable man stands for what he believes in!”

For his part, Sammy wants nothing more than to keep proving his loyalty to the U.S. and, therefore, he willingly enlists in the 442nd Regiment of the U.S. Army despite the worrisome objections of his older sis. This particular unit—comprised of all Japanese-American men borne from immigrant parents—is essentially a suicide squad, tasked by the U.S. Army with the most dangerous assignments in the war effort. No surprise, Mike Masaoka approves of this.

As the musical continues, tensions and dangers heighten on two different continents, as one would expect. In Europe, Sammy fights tyrannical forces while trying to keep his unit and himself alive (after all, Sammy’s got a girl back home), while back in Wyoming, Frankie is leading a resistance against the military draft. Let’s just say that violence erupts in both situations.

Riveting and captivating, “ALLEGIANCE”—featuring a book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione and music and lyrics by Jay Kuo—is an admirable attempt at giving voice to a true American story that, alarmingly, is still not as widely-known as it should be, especially because it happened on American soil and not in some far away land. Allowing this moment in history to have a bit of the spotlight is important not only for educational purposes but as a political call to action.

And not only does “ALLEGIANCE” involve a rare and unique story worth telling, it also provides a rare opportunity for an Asian-American story—with the added plus of being written by and acted by Asian-Americans—to take center stage in such a mainstream way that audiences of various backgrounds can take the story in, relate to it, empathize with it, and, perhaps, even see their own parallels with it.

While, sure, the dual storylines of the Kimura family’s soapy storylines and the larger scope of the internment camps are at a constant battle for dominance throughout its two acts, But with that said, I feel that this East West production is the closest yet in finding a theatrically-appealing balance of the musical’s two parallel halves. This production’s more intimate staging—enhanced by Rumi Oyama’s mesmerizing lyrical choreography and some terrific projections from Adam Fleming—allow audience members to feel enveloped by the story rather than just be observers of it.

One thing I do miss from the original Old Globe production is an early, very moving and powerful moment in the musical that showed all the characters (alongside the Kimuras) traveling to the Heart Mountain camp huddled in tight quarters, experiencing the unknown, collective dread of it all. The scene, if I’m not mistaken, took place on a train, followed by a much more involved arrival sequence that, I believe, allowed the audience a fuller grasp of the harshness of their new situation in the camps compared to what they’ve left behind. With its current narrative swiftness, we’re often told life at Heart Mountain is hellish, but we don’t necessarily see it.

But at the end of the day, though, the overall production touched me and moved me more than the previous productions I’ve seen. It impressed me enough to forgive some the musical’s embedded flaws that have stayed on through every iteration.

And, yes, I know… the producers wanted the focus to be on the Kimuras—and in musical theater tropes, that was probably the expected, natural way it had to go. Luckily, the characters do feel fully formed—helped along with some outstanding acting and singing work from the show’s cast.

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A familiar presence in all three iterations of “ALLEGIANCE” thus far is, of course, Mr. Takei—himself a former resident of one of these internment camps as a very young boy and whose personal experiences directly inspired the musical. Playing dual roles of palpable distinction, Mr. Takei does some great nuanced work here. As the older Sammy, his bitterness and general disagreeable demeanor belays a man that has been hurting for decades. In delightful contrast, Mr. Takei also plays Sammy’s grandfather in flashback, a goofy man who is full of life and full of charming zingers. If Ms. Wang’s Kei is the show’s heart then Mr. Takei’s Ojii-chan is the show’s light—something they all needed in an environment of darkness.

The show’s soul, though, belongs to Mr. Le Phong’s Sammy—a tortured man caught between honor and tradition. It is definitely the musical’s showiest role, and Mr. Le Phong delivers not only on vocals but in his many acting choices in essaying Sammy’s journey from idealistic young man to forever traumatized adult soldier. Ms. Wang is a remarkable vocal powerhouse that gives her songs lots of divaliciousness, while at the same time giving her Kei the weight and caregiving nature of the responsible single daughter/sister.

Also worth noting: Greg Watanabe provides an air of intrigue as the conflicted Mike Masaoka, a controversial figure in the history of these events whose motivations and actions remain appropriately complex; Scott Watanabe provides great work as the prideful, old-world widower Tatsuo who straddles a fine line between traditionalism and retaining one’s true honor; Mr. Cabling’s Frankie is convincing as an intellectual with a rebellious streak—just the kind of “bad boy” attitude that Kei can believably fall for; and finally Ms. MacDonald is lovely as Sammy’s crush, Nurse Hannah, whose kindly persona is just the kind of bedside demeanor this camp needed (and bravo for holding her own acting and singing beside a sea of acting vets).

The remaining ensemble members are all wonderful, particularly in the sequences that require full production numbers as well as moments of great collective despair and anguish. Sound wise this production is blessed with a vibrant orchestra led by musical director Marc Macalintal, and a surround-soundscape designed by Cricket S. Myers. Halei Parker’s costumes transport us back to 40’s suburbia in its vintage chic. These great performances are all beautifully framed by Se Hyun Oh’s intuitive set design and complemented by Karyn Lawrence’s lighting.

As we grapple with a 21st Century where our country is still at a significant divide and has allowed fear to take hold, experiencing an important piece like “ALLEGIANCE”—a commanding retelling of a moment when another “other” is forced into a shameful condition that is essentially a sanctioned, lawful way to discriminate solely on the basis of one’s specific ethnicity—is almost required viewing for all to see, if only to be reminded that one should not rush to judgment or make sweeping generalizations about an entire group of people, especially when such actions can significantly affect many lives and families in a terrible, inhumane way.

Is the price of security (for some) the robbing of others of their freedom? No. No it shouldn’t be. After you see “ALLEGIANCE” you’ll likely feel the same, too.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ

Photos from the East West Players production of “ALLEGIANCE” at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center by Michael Lamont.

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The East West Players production of ‘”ALLEGIANCE” at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center’s Aratani Theatre continues through April 1, 2018. Tickets available by calling (213) 680-3700 or online at AllegianceMusical.com. For more info on this and other East West Players productions, visit www.eastwestplayers.org.