In one seamless and stirring transition, Allegiance – A New American Musical holds the U.S.’ World War II-era shame up to scrutiny and takes our breath away. Halfway into the second act of this world premiere at the Old Globe, Ojii-San (Grandpa), while faithfully tending the garden he has managed to grow in the rock-hard soil of the Japanese internment camp in which he is forced to live, sinks to the ground, falls still and dies. After his body is gently wrapped in netting and carried away, the stage is transformed into ground zero for the deadly mission of the Enola Gay. Sound throttles the darkened theater, and projected beyond the stage in unearthly light are the ruins of Hiroshima. We remember, and in a flash we feel the weight of our collective conscience.
Yet Allegiance – A New American Musical, written by Mark Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, with music and lyrics by Kuo, is not bound up in historical shock and awe. Its story of a wrongly displaced Japanese American family is a tender subtext to the big-picture injustice of the internments themselves. Tony winner (for Miss Saigon) Lea Salonga heads an affecting cast as Kei, the daughter and quiet strength of the relocated (from their Salinas farm to remote Wyoming) Kimura family. Though Allegiance’s score is secondary to its important narrative, Salonga soars in numbers including “Higher,” “The Things That Matter Most” and “Gaman” (in Japanese, patience – a personal resolution for surviving the hardships of the internment camps). Telly Leung is Kei’s younger brother, Sammy, who dreams of (as the song goes) “Going Places” and falls, misguided, under the spell of Mike Masaoka (Paolo Montalban), who preaches patriotism but practices betrayal. Then there’s George Takei, who himself was in an internment camp. He is all dignity and grace in the double role of Ojii-San and the Sam Kimura who has grown old and bitter and sad.
In addition to the steady hand of director Stafford Arima, Allegiance benefits from choreography by Andrew Palermo, especially in the rebellious internment camp romp “Paradise.” While the show’s lessons are clear, its answers are not easy ones, chiefly to the question “Why?”
We may never know.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.