Plays and movies about history’s most heinous episodes of discrimination are never easy. Too often they collapse under the weight of stereotypes that make the villains all bad and the heroes mere victims. “Allegiance,” the new musical that opened Sunday at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre, avoids this problem by putting only three guardsmen-soldiers on stage, and in very supporting roles.
They’re the bad guys, and the good guys are the many Japanese Americans who’ve been incarcerated in internment camps during World War II. “Allegiance” doesn’t make light of those three soldiers. Indeed, in a clear but unspoken reference to what’s going on in Nazi Germany, these soldiers round up their Japanese-American captives at gunpoint, put them on crowded trains, and dump them off in filthy, faraway barracks where they’re immediately ordered to strip for physical examinations.
It’s deeply chilling, and book writers Marc Acito, Jay Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione get right to the heart of the horror in the musical’s first scenes.
The real success of the “Allegiance” book, however, isn’t its depiction of injustice, which is vivid. What distinguishes the show is its extremely varied portraits of the Japanese-American characters.
Rather than focusing on the atrocities they suffer, “Allegiance” follows three men’s radically different responses to the crisis: Sammy Kimura (Telly Leung) enlists in the Army despite his family’s continued internment. Frankie Suzuki (the dynamic Michael K. Lee) turns rebel inside the camp. Most fascinatingly is the real-life Mike Masaoka (Greg Watanabe), who as a top official with the Japanese-American Citizens League, urged cooperation with the government and called for the creation of the Nisei 100th Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
That’s a lot of history to pack into a two-and-half-hour show, and yet the authors and the cast (under the sure-footed direction of Stafford Arima) never reduce “Allegiance” to a lecture.
They even find time to deliver not one but two full-blooded love stories: At the camp, Sammy falls for a white nurse (Katie Rose Clarke), while Frankie catches the eye of Sammy’s sister Kei (Lea Salonga, in great voice).
At the center of all this love and conflict is a loyalty questionnaire that the prisoners are required to fill out. The more defiant among them mark a few boxes “no” instead of “yes,” all of which leads to a family feud that doesn’t end with the dropping of the atom bombs (rendered in haunting images by designers Donyale Werle, Howell Binkley, Kai Harada, and Darrel Maloney).
It’s unfortunate that the score by Kuo doesn’t enhance this harrowing story. His fixation on overblown anthems can best be described by listing a few of the song titles: “Do Not Fight the Storm,” “What Makes a Man,” “Our Time Now,” “Stronger Than Before,” and “Nothing in Our Way,” each of which starts on a ponderous note and inflates from there. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Climb Every Mountain” sounds like Debussy in comparison.
Playing a grandfather, George Takei makes his Broadway debut at age 78. In musical theater, old people tend to be either grumpy or cuddly. Takei is the latter, but he’s much more than adorable. He’s the heart of the show. “Allegiance” is inspired by the actions of Takei’s parents, who answered “no” on that infamous loyalty questionnaire.