Theater Review: “Allegiance” — Inspiration By-The-Numbers

Despite my complaints, Allegiance is affecting – almost frustratingly so.

Allegiance Book by Mark Acito, Jay Kuo & Lorenzo Thione. Music and Lyrics by Jay Kuo. Directed by Paul Daigneault. Music Direction by Matthew Stern. Choreography by Ilyse Robbins. Staged by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA, through June 2.

Melissa Geerlof and Grace Yoo in the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of “Allegiance.” Photo: Nile Scott Studios.

By Kamela Dolinova

There’s nothing that can sink a work of art into banality quite so reliably as political relevance.  Allegiance, making its Boston premiere at Speakeasy Stage Company, is doubly torpedoed in this regard: the musical covers an important but often overlooked part of American history – the Japanese internment camps of World War II – and resonates powerfully with the racist behavior of our current administration, with its Muslim bans and family-rending ICE raids. That makes it a terribly important moment to tell the story of the Kimuras: a multigenerational Japanese-American family who are uprooted, imprisoned, and ultimately torn apart by the US government. Unfortunately, though this show is “inspired by a true story,” its truths are too superficially made, its characters too stock, its plot too pat, and its music too unmemorable to be as artistically powerful as its subject matter deserves.

Very little of the fault for this lies with Speakeasy Stage, whose producing artistic director Paul Daigneault has mounted a sensitive, light-footed, and entertaining production. The spare and intimate staging, built around a simple rotating platform and a tree latticed with scrim (scenic design by Eric Levenson), provides ample room for Ilyse Robbins’ code-switching choreography.

The supporting ensemble, led in ballet, jazz, and Japanese dance by Kendyl Yokohama, is impressively cohesive and committed, particularly in some of the more populated numbers. And the leading cast members turn in solid performances all around – some of them even splendid. Gary Thomas Ng, doubling as the older Sam Kimura and Ojii-chan (the role originated by George Takei), is inspired, infusing his warm and gentle grandfather with humor and humanity. Grace Yoo, leading the cast as responsible older sister Kei, commands with her poise and vibrant voice. Her love interest – the draft-card-burning protester Frankie Suzuki – is played with grounded charisma by Tyler Simahk. Melissa Geerlof also nails it as nurse and everyday hero Hannah Campbell. And if the power-tenor range of her forbidden love, young soldier Sam Kimura, is a bit out of actor Sam Tanabe’s grasp, he more than makes up for it with infectious enthusiasm and tireless grit.

The problem, really, is the musical itself. The book, a joint effort by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione, is based on the childhood of Star Trek vet and social media icon George Takei, who at the age of 5 was interned with his family in one of the many prison camps set up by the US government post Pearl Harbor. After his parents, having already had their home, business, and liberty taken, refused to sign a loyalty oath to the United States Government, they were transferred to an even harsher camp called Tule Lake.

Allegiance‘s dramatic conflict centers on a family divide inspired by these events: paterfamilias Tatsuo Kimura (played with vigor and conviction by Ron Domingo) chooses to answer ‘no’ to the loyalty questionnaire, retaining his dignity after all else has been taken. His son, Sammy, rebels, joining the army in order to prove his family’s loyalty and free them; the daughter, Kei, teams up with Frankie, the charismatic young man who insists on resistance as an alternate strategy. The end of the internment comes — at least partially — as a result of both of these efforts. But not before Hannah, Sammy’s white love interest, is killed in an accidental shooting that involves Frankie. There follows a family split that distances Sammy from his sister for over fifty years. A chance for closure arrives when Sam learns of his sister’s death from his niece, whom he has not seen since infancy.

In spite of its many tired tropes, the narrative holds together well enough, though its details are rife with cliches. And, while the script contains no children other than infants, the proceedings feel a bit like the hazy recollection of a child. Frankly, having a child as a ‘frame’ storyteller – maybe a 7-year-old like Takei himself in Tule Lake – might have made the cartoonish quality of the characters and their dialogue make more sense. As it is, the plot’s interactions come off as nebulous, the characters’ motivations feel forced and one-dimensional, and the songs are generic and forgettable. At times, Kuo’s music feels as if the composer had worked from a “How to Write an American Musical” primer. Early on, I thought the over-earnestness might have been an attempt to emulate the feel of the period: Rodgers and Hammerstein, “corny as Kansas in August.” And it made sense as a musical strategy: the Japanese-American characters in the play are desperate to prove their American-ness, with baseball, jitterbug, and flag-waving. When it’s successful, the music echoes those rah-rah sentiments.

Gary Thomas Ng, Grace Yoo, Ron Domingo, and Sam Tanabe in the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of “Allegiance.” Photo: Nile Scott Studios.

But the lyrics are too overt, at times even insipid. At their worst, they undermine the seriousness of the play’s subject, transforming what should be a searing message of remembrance to pop-song pabulum. Rodgers and Hammerstein may have been writing in a cornier time, but that didn’t stop their characters from being fully fleshed out, nor their songs from addressing important issues while also carrying their singers through an emotional journey. There’s no teeth in Kuo’s songs, nothing to hang a high note on, nothing distinctive about an “I wish” song like “Higher” (“I dreamed I’d reach for greater things / My eyes upon those golden rings” struck me as particularly vapid).

This is not to say the staging doesn’t provide some truly lovely moments. The show is powerful when it touches on the universal in the specific – those moments that move us not just because they are familiar, but because they are carefully drawn particulars. Also, the best of these episodes are also places where the mash-up of Japanese and American culture in the characters’ lives can be seen most clearly: Ojii-chan giving Kei an origami flower, folded from the US government’s loyalty questionnaire. Women in formal kimono drawing the souls from fallen soldiers by lifting their dog tags from their bodies. And the haunting “Itetsuita,” sung in Japanese in canon with the radio broadcast announcing the bombing of Hiroshima. The few tunes that dare to strike a satirical note also work better, such as “Paradise,” in which the imprisoned ensemble dances swing to a sharp and bitter jazz number led by Frankie. (“Why are Japanese-American kids so good at math? Because they spend the whole year in concentration camp!”) It’s not quite “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” (the cutting anti-racism song in R&H’s own Asian musical, South Pacific, and later referenced by Lin Manuel Miranda in Hamilton), but it’s one of the show’s stronger and more complex songs.

Despite my complaints, the musical is affecting – almost frustratingly so. Kuo hits all of his marks, if uninspiredly. One can see how very hard the cast is working, too, to make the emotional moments land and, often, the same irritating thing happens: the music swells and I’m simultaneously  wiping away tears and angry. The show traffics in my least favorite theatrical habit: lazy emotional manipulation. It’s especially easy, here, because the story is so important – yet so underserved by the text. It’s wonderful that this vital story is being told by an entirely Asian-American team for the first time in this format. Here’s hoping that, in the future, more such stories are told with more art and less formula.

Kamela Dolinova is a writer, actor, director, healer, and person with too many jobs. She loves the community and little theatre scenes in Boston, and has recently enjoyed working with Flat Earth Theatre, Theatre@First, and Maiden Phoenix Theatre Company. She also blogs at Power In Your Hands and at Medium.

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