First Nighter: 'Allegiance' Attempts to Musicalize World War II's Japanese-American Internment Camps

We all know about the importance of being earnest, but it's likely we all underestimate the importance of not being earnest. That importance struck me while watching Allegiance, the new musical about the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II, with book by Mark Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione and music and lyrics by Kuo.

There's no disputing that tackling their extremely serious subject matter, they've put their hearts into the endeavor now at the Longacre, but their result does raise an often expressed question about what subjects can and can't be -- what subjects should and shouldn't be -- musicalized.

There are those musical flame-keepers who maintain that certain topics shouldn't be dramatized, let alone musicalized. (The Holocaust usually comes up when the argument begins.) On the other hand, there are those who hold -- present company among them -- that anything is ripe for dramatizing if those involved are up to the task.

So it's an unpleasant duty to report that the Allegiance creators aren't quite prepared, but not for lack of putting their shoulders to the musical-comedy-crafting wheel with muscularity. They tell their story earnestly, but in the end -- and despite its many songs--the enterprise doesn't sing.

When the Japanese-American citizens are sent to prison camps after Pearl Harbor is bombed and the United States enters the war, the Kimura family of Salinas, California joins those sent to Wyoming's Heart Mountain Relocation Center. Sammy Kimura (Telly Leung), who attempts to enlist but is rejected according to the government ruling about Japanese citizens joining the Armed Forces, maintains his determination to become a soldier.

He's consistently discouraged by his father Tatsuo (Christopher Nomura), with whom he has a fraught relationship, but is less opposed by his sister Kei (Lea Salonga) and his grandfather Ojii-chan (George Takei, Star Trek's Mr. Sulu, also playing the older Sammy, whose flashback constitutes the greater part of the musical).

But while Sammy continues arguing for Japanese-Americans to be given the opportunity to enlist, he falls for a white nurse, Hannah Campbell (Katie Rose Clarke). At much the same time, he falls seriously out with Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee), with whom Kei has begun a romance. Frankie refuses to enlist because he won't fight for a nation that's interned him and his fellow countrymen and countrywomen.

Sammy's campaign to reach the battlefield and what happens to his family--and nurse Hannah--while he's becoming a war hero (earning the Purple Heart as well as a Life magazine cover)--is the substance of Allegiance. The point of title couldn't be more obvious, but the plodding by-the-numbers manner in which it's told is its undoing.

Despite the hard-working cast, there are other built-in drawbacks to what, hardly by the way, appears to be a version of Takei's experiences during the war years. Whether it's a literal retelling isn't entirely clear, but if it is or if it isn't entirely the point. That it's one step towards reparation is apparent, even though it's a belated one, and while a step such as this can't redeem the destruction to one of the country's melting-pot population, at least it recognizes that such ignominies occurred.

And it's all the more reason to wish Allegiance were better. Most commentators will insist that for a musical to excel, it must have good music. Though Kuo has written a lot of it, the score just doesn't make the grade.

To show the interned crowds' intentions to better their humiliating circumstance, Kuo provides numbers with titles like "Do Not Fight the Storm," "Get in the Game," "Our Time Now," "Resist," "Stronger Than Before" and "Nothing in Our Way." These are the kinds of anthems typically sung by actors with the arms stiff at their sides, and it isn't long before -- as written and as arranged and orchestrated by Lynne Shankel -- they begin to sound like one attenuated anthem.

Since Allegiance is, by definition, a grim undertaking -- and director Stafford Arima takes care that the proper tone often prevails -- the producers have obviously decided that staple musical-comedy ingredients should be mixed in. As a result, there are several bright and bubbly items about keeping up morale with which choreographer Andrew Palermo doesn't do much out of the ordinary.

Yes, the somber atmosphere does seem to have concerned the purveyors. There's more than a few passing references to camp hardships -- the paucity of medical supplies, for instance, as well as the frigid Wyoming winter weather and the dust storms. There's even a brief dust-storm ballet. But somehow and despite the internees' deprivations, everyone -- thanks to costume designer Alejo Vietti -- remains well-dressed and well-laundered. At no time do the wardrobes of these greatly stressed folks start to look worn out and faded.

(For the record, Donyale Werle designed the functional set, Howell Binkley the lights, Kai Harada the sound, Darrel (On Your Feet! earlier this week) Maloney the projections and Charles G. (also On Your Feet! earlier this week) LaPointe the wigs -- all at the going Broadway standards.)

A recurring figure in Allegiance is Mike Masaoka (Greg Watanabe), who was executive secretary of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). He and the 1929-founded organization come in for much criticism about what was left unachieved in the way of civil rights. These tidbits dropped into the proceedings may be among the dryer ones, but they certainly are intriguing in a musical with admirable intentions but not completely possessed of everything else required.