“Allegiance” is a musical about the incarceration of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. In mass-market, story-and-song form, it encourages audiences to think deeply about a time when Americans were rounded up and shipped away because of their ethnicity. It is a learning opportunity for some; for others, an acknowledgment of collective pain.
That’s a heavy burden for any show to bear, and this one doesn’t always shoulder it well. But it is brave for making the attempt.
Brave too are East West Players and the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, which made gutsy, financially intensive commitments to ensure that Los Angeles sees this show. “Allegiance” emerged at the Old Globe in San Diego in 2012, then in 2015 tackled Broadway, where it never quite caught on and played for just three months, after a month of previews.
With a different production team but some of the Broadway performers, the show opened Wednesday at the cultural center’s Aratani Theatre in downtown L.A., where it is headlined, as always, by George Takei.
“Allegiance” tries to be an unconventionally educational musical as well as a traditionally entertaining one. That makes it unwieldy but puts it in a very small club with the late-1970s local sensation “Zoot Suit,” about a 1940s period of brutality and incarceration of L.A.’s Mexican American community.
The history that “Allegiance” revisits was set in motion by America’s entry into World War II and President Roosevelt’s Feb. 19, 1942, issuance of Executive Order 9066, which gave the War secretary power to define military zones from which people could be excluded. Within months, 117,000 to 120,000 people of Japanese descent on the West Coast, two-thirds of them native-born, were forced to leave their homes for relocation to inland camps.
The musical traverses this period in the company of the fictional Kimura family. They are introduced in July 1941 as farmers in Salinas, Calif. The family patriarch, Tatsuo (played by Scott Watanabe), built the farm from nothing and dreams of a better life for his children: Sammy (Ethan Le Phong), whom he’s pushing to be a lawyer, and Kei (Elena Wang), who ended up raising Sammy after their mother died. Further bonding the family is Tatsuo’s father (Takei).
The hopes that take flight in a soaring melody called “Wishes on the Wind” are soon dashed by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the issuance of the executive order. The Kimuras join other dazed families who are sent to the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming, where their multifamily barrack is meager protection from choking dust and bitter cold.
The set design by Se Hyun Oh conveys how prison-like the camp feels to the families. The stage is mostly bare except for a series of illuminated boxes lowered on black bars. When these are dropped all the way, the bars form what look like a cell, a symbol echoed in the outline of a bare-studded barrack wall. Throughout the show, projections (designed by Adam Flemming) are terrifically used to paint mountains and barracks onto white backgrounds that frame the stage or display black-and-white vintage photos of camp families.
Every member of the Kimura family does what he or she thinks is right to preserve dignity, but each does so in a different way, representing the various courses followed by the larger Japanese American community.
Sammy begins by trying to boost camp morale, then enlisting when the Army forms the segregated 442nd Infantry Regiment. Tatsuo, who at first counsels the family not to make waves, balks when, in 1943, all interned Japanese Americans are required to complete a questionnaire assessing their loyalty. He is sequestered to another camp.
Kei assists fellow incarceree Frankie (Eymard Cabling) after he refuses to serve when drafted. Grandpa coaxes a garden from inhospitable soil, doing what he can to make the camp seem homey.
The book for “Allegiance” is by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, the music and lyrics by Kuo.
Kuo’s melodies mostly make you think of other musicals: a Cole Porter-ish meet-cute/instant-dislike song for Sammy and a Caucasian nurse; a Frank Loesser-like tune to accompany a camp baseball game; a Rodgers & Hammerstein-ian decision song for the nurse; a Kander & Ebb-like satirical number about camp life led by Frankie; and Boublil & Schönberg-like anthems for Kei.
The plotting tends toward melodrama and, perhaps because so much history is compressed into a short time, the characterizations are rendered mostly in broad strokes, but director Snehal Desai and his performers effectively flesh things out. The singing is quite good too, especially Le Phong’s powerful, clarinet-like high baritone and Wang’s ringing soprano. Marc Macalintal conducts a pit orchestra of 11. The production flows smoothly and artfully.
After intermission, the story turns particularly bleak, brightening for just a moment before the teary close. (Incarcerees were allowed to return to the coast beginning in January 1945; the last at Heart Mountain left that fall, after Japan’s surrender.) Reliably triggering the emotion is Takei, who is not given much else to do except now and again say something humorous or warmly wise in that gravelly voice of his.
Whether you go see “Allegiance,” perhaps we all could at least strive to learn more by visiting what remains of such camps as Tule Lake, Manzanar or Heart Mountain, or to learn from the close-at-hand Japanese American National Museum. An early lyric in “Allegiance” refers to this as “a time that no one speaks of anymore.” That needn’t be the case.
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Where: Aratani Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St., downtown L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends April 1
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (one intermission)