How do you make a musical about the internment of Japanese-Americans following Pearl Harbor? George Takei has the answer! Best-known for playing Mr. Sulu in Star Trek, Takei’s life has not always been glamorous: as a child, he and his family were forcibly relocated into an internment camp, along with hundreds of thousands of fellow Japanese-Americans. Allegiance is inspired by his time at an internment camp – and he also stars in the musical.
Allegiance premiered in San Diego back in 2012 and played on Broadway in 2015. All these years later, it has finally arrived in London. It is playing at the small, intimate Charing Cross Theatre, an Off West End theatre in the West End. The space has been reconfigured, with the stage in the middle and seats at either side, creating an intimate (almost claustrophobic) space – with all eyes on the prisoners, the (mostly White) audience not mere voyeurs but guards, watching their every move.
Takei plays the older version of the main character, Sam Kimura, in the present day, as well as “Ojii-chan” (grandpa) in the 1940s. Telly Leung (Glee‘s Wes), who also starred in the San Diego and Broadway productions, plays Sam in the 1940s. Sam’s sister, Kei, is played by Aynrand Ferrer, whilst their father (Ooji-chan’s son), Tatsuo, is played by Masashi Fujimoto.
The main cast is exceptional. Whilst Takei’s roles are small, he shines whenever he is onstage – not just because he’s an icon; he’s also warm and charming. Leung, meanwhile, is a mesmerising as the multifaceted lead character – and even more handsome in real life (it’s hard to believe he’s 43 but you know what they say, brown don’t frown, Asian don’t raisin!). Aynrand Ferrer steals the show with her vivacious vocals, which are reminiscent of Lea Salonga’s (who originated the role of Kei). Fujimoto manages to be sympathetic as Sam’s strong-minded and stern father.
The musical begins with Takei walking onstage alone, as the elder Sam, wearing military uniform. He reveals resignedly that he is “brought out every year on the Pearl Harbour anniversary”. A woman then approaches Sam and tells him that his sister, Kei, has died, and she has something for him. Sam reveals that he has not spoken to Kei in 50 years before Kei’s ghost informs him that she could not rest in peace without making one last attempt to reconnect with him. We are then transported to the 1940s, prior to the internment of Japanese-Americans, all while wondering why Sam and Kei, who are seen to be loving and supportive siblings, are soon to be estranged for the rest of their lives.
As Broadway requires, the book is a rom-com at times. Sam falls for the camp nurse, Hannah, a blonde White woman (played to perfection by Megan Gardiner), whilst Kei falls for fellow campmate Frankie (Patrick Munday). But the romance is by no means the engine of the plot. The musical’s focus is on ideology, loyalty, and, yes, allegiance – not just allegiance to your country but also your people and your family.
The romantic aspects of the musical are not merely quintessential Broadway fodder but strategic plot devices: Sam, a patriotic American who wants to join the military to prove his loyalty to his country, and in turn free his people, falls for a member of the regime oppressing his people (even though she is very much against the oppression). Meanwhile, Kei, a proud Japanese-American who despises the US government and military for imprisoning her people, falls for Frankie, a fellow rebel who refuses to join the military. This sets in motion the inevitable breakdown of a previously loving family.
Over the course of the show, potent ideas are touched on. Sam’s father is especially bold in his admonishing of the US government and military; he sings the title song, in which he lambasts his son for pledging allegiance to a country that has wrongfully imprisoned his people. The musical does not shy away from racism, with the camp guard telling Hannah that it’s a good job she’s a nurse because she is suffering from “yellowfever” (because she has fallen in love with an Asian man). Later, a campmate remarks, “We’re at war with Italy and nobody’s putting Joe DiMaggio in a camp”.
Then there’s the musical’s most interesting character: the real-life Mike Masoaka (Iverson Yabut). A divisive figure, Masoaka was a key player in encouraging cooperation of the JACL with Japanese American internment, but he also fought for the rights of Japanese-Americans during and after the war. His supporters see him as strategic and pragmatic whilst his critics render him a sell-out and a traitor. A morally dubious figure, his final monologue, whilst explaining his process and ideas, does not clear things up; the musical does not tell us what to think of Masoaka but allows us to form our own opinion.
I was reminded of the characterisation of Winnie Mandela in Mandela, which I caught last month, also in the Off West End. Her portrayal was neither overly sympathetic nor critical. She was not merely “mother of the nation” nor a brutal dictator but a scarred, troubled woman with an ideology markedly different to her husband’s: she did not merely want equality; she wanted revenge. People have vastly different opinions on both Masoaka and Mandela, and their respective musicals bring those divisions to life, without forcing us to pledge allegiance to or against them.
The only other White actor, Mark Anderson, plays numerous White characters over the course of the show, beginning with the Kimura family’s neighbour and most notably a camp guard. Ostensibly, having one actor play all of the White characters (bar the one White woman in the musical) is a way of saving dollar and not having a cast of thousands, but it also appears to be a comment on Whiteness – and the complicity of White folk who do not speak out. After all, the neighbour has been friendly with the Kimura family for years and is first seen partaking in a traditional Japanese celebration – but he jumps at the chance to buy their house for a bargain when they are sent away.
The catchy score is pretty generic Broadway in sound and lyrical content though the music can be rousing, with some martial beats (signifying the US military) and high flute sounds (signifying Japanese culture). The aforementioned ‘Allegiance’ is very poignant, and the first act ends with the powerful ‘Our Time Now’. ‘Paradise’ is the musical’s most fun number; it’s very Broadway. Whilst it’s upbeat and groovy, the subject matter is still quite serious. The number brilliantly shows that oppressed peoples – even those wrongfully imprisoned – can have fun and even make light out of horrible situations.
The musical is proudly Japanese. ‘Ishi Kara Ishi’, a Japanese song about moving a mountain stone by stone, is both mournful and moving. There are some really lovely understated Japanese moments, usually done by Grandpa: his hanging a wind-chime where a US flag flies, his meditative gardening, and his bow to his son when he (the son) is taken away by the military.
Whilst the internment of Japanese-Americans is an historical event, it is great to see it acknowledged in art; it is not something we hear about very often. The themes resonate with modern debates on immigration and identity, especially in the USA, where there are still undocumented immigrants in cages.
That said, the production does not always carry the enormous weight and emotional force it ought to. At times, it feels a little fluffy, and whilst there are some dark, disturbing moments, it’s never quite harrowing – which is a disservice to this horrific historical event. The musical is oddly billed as an “uplifting Broadway musical” – and perhaps therein lies the problem. The musical should not be all doom and gloom, no, but I don’t imagine a musical would approach Nazi concentration camps in quite the same way.
Allegiance is by no means perfect, and not among the musical greats, but it’s a gripping performance that bravely and boldly tackles an important and difficult subject matter. I’m not sure how Takei manages to relive those painful memories everyday but it’s cathartic watching him bring his people’s stories to life.
George Takei’s Allegiance runs at Charing Cross Theatre until April 8.