Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Allegiance: Important Statement, Mediocre Musical

George Takei, as the aged Sammy in the original Broadway production of “Allegiance” [photo: Matthew Murphy]

There are two ways to look at the East West Players/Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC)’s new production of the musical “Allegiance,” just opened at the Aratani Theatre in Little Tokyo. Both have a validity, which must be acknowledged, but the results of those two ways of examination may prove very different.

The first is the affirmation it gives to people of Japanese descent, as it tells the tale of that black mark on 20th century American history, the Japanese Internment. The story is an important one, and – as the program states – those Issei and Nissei who lived it are disappearing with time. Having a way to keep their story alive, and to let those culturally linked to it see themselves on stage, is important indeed. To some extent, “Allegiance” does that.

The other way to look at “Allegiance” is simply as a work of theater, evaluating it on the more universal aspects one normally ascribes to a Broadway musical. There the results are far more mixed. With all its good intentions, passion and relevence, “Allegiance” proves somewhat antiquated in style, formulaic in construction, and lacking the depth one would hope to find in a piece about something so profound.

The story follows a single family through the devastating changes to Japanese American life caused by the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent Executive Order 9066, forcing all Japanese on the US mainland out of coastal areas, with the loss of homes and businesses, and into prison camps. In the process, it works to present the rifts within and around that Japanese community as they cope with the overt racism of this event: of generation, of political thought, and of action.

This is a tall order for any musical. The essential book, by Mark Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, although choppy at times, manages to cover this episodic story with breadth if not depth. However, Kuo’s musical numbers keep the pacing of the piece from working properly. Every single song is formulated the same way: start small and introspective, then build and build to a highly dramatic and affirmative ending, even if it really isn’t appropriate to end that way.

With the exception of the opening number – which promises all the elements which should be there throughout – the songs, which multiply during sequences in the camp, disrupt any attempt to build tension and dramatic structure. Instead, you have dialogue, dramatic musical affirmation, then a bit more dialogue, then another dramatic musical affirmation, pretty much in the same tone throughout. It makes what should be a consistently heartrending story become formulaic, and doesn’t really allow for enough development of characters we should want to care about.

Still, the ensemble works hard to make things flow, and to create characters which resonate with the audience. Ethan Le Phong and Elena Wang have the most fully rounded portraits to deal with, as the young adult brother and sister – Sammy and Kei Kimura – whose tale is central to the piece. Le Phong makes Sammy vibrate with an energy half anger and half determination to live into his identity as an American. Wang, as a woman trying to preserve the bond between generations, speaks to a growing self-identity forged through difficult times.

Scott Watanabe gives their determinedly Japanese father, legitimately angry at the loss of the fruits of a lifetime of labor, a stalwart, noble quality which underscores the reasonableness of the anger. George Takai makes the elderly grandfather the antithesis of this – a man who has long learned to adapt to whatever comes, finding a way to create his own happiness in the midst of disarray and discrimination.

Also worthy of note are Natalie Holt MacDonald as the white American army nurse assigned to the camp, whose heart goes out to the people she can only partially help and to Sammy in particular, and Greg Watanabe, as the recognized advocate for Japanese in America whose approach to government has been blamed by some as acquiescence.

Director Snehal Desai has worked to take this choppy thing and make it into a cohesive whole. At times this works brilliantly, as it does in the scene surrounding the family’s arrival at the Heart Mountain camp in northwest Wyoming. In others, even the constant use of Se Hyun Ho and Adam Flemming’s projection-rich sets cannot keep this show on emotional target.

In sum, the Japanese Internment was a blight on American democracy, and putting it on stage for all to see is important. As a contemporary anthropologist said at the time, the fact that these same internees returned to their homes and worked to become part of the American mainstream is remarkable, given their treatment. To celebrate their story and struggle in music and on stage, and to let Japanese Americans experience their own heritage is enriching within that community as well. “Allegiance” does all that. One just wishes it was as good as its intentions.

What: “Allegiance” When: through April 1, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Where: JACCC’s Aratani Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St., in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo How Much: $25 – $130 Info: (213) 680-3700 or http://www.AllegianceMusical.com

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