A Salute to Those Serving in ALLEGIANCE
In a time when fear took hold of the US government and rounding up innocent families into camps (an eerie mirror of how fear is rocking our nation and the government is rounding up innocent families at the border) comes the story of the Kimura family, a family sent to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming during the heart of World War II. Inspired by the actual experiences of George Takei and his family, ALLEGIANCE is a musical with book by Mark Acito, Jay Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione and music by Jay Kuo. Manoa Valley Theatre’s crown jewel of their fiftieth season, this production traveled out of Manoa Valley and is currently running in Chinatown at the Hawaii Theatre, where the size of the stage and the house can accommodate the numbers necessary that something as grand as ALLEGIANCE demands.
Directed by Paul Mitri, the production begins in 2001 with our look at veteran Sam Kimura (Dann Seki), who is delivered news of his sister’s passing as well as something she left him. He has not seen her in fifty years. The play then goes back in time to 1941 in Salinas, California, The colors are vibrant and there is a whole community abound, a stark contrast to the first scene with Sam. In 1941, we are introduced to his younger self’s homecoming; Sammy Kimura (Ethan Le Phong) is welcomed by his sister Kei (Kristian Lei), father Tatsuo (Bradford Kaliko Yamamoto), and grandfather, Ojii-chan (Dann Seki). The Kimura family are farmers, and the community in Salinas that they are a part of treats them warmly. Then, the bombing of Pearl Harbor occurs, and things changes quickly for the Kimura family as well as any citizens with Japanese ancestry. We are then introduced to one of the many interment camps spread throughout the country, the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, where it’s dusty and hot in the daytime and dusty and frigid in the evening. The war and the time in the internment camp tests the Kimura’s as well as others at Heart Mountain- some want to keep their head down and stick together, to weather this out. Some are angered by the United States’ government’s actions, and they see the injustice this clearly is. Japan American Citizens League (JACL) higher-up Mike Masaoka (Devon Nekoba) in Washington DC pushes for the US Military to recruit Japanese American citizens at the price of them being assigned to the front lines, engaging in the most dangerous missions that the military has. When the government approves, Sammy is one of the many to sign up. The existence of this Japanese American battalion causes rifts and splinters within families and communities. Why fight for the country that has only taken everything away from you? Then again, are the soldiers not American, and they are meant for the duty and the privilege to fight for their country? The musical asks these questions and more, carefully showing many sides and allowing the audience to follow the Kimura family through history.
Mitri’s cast that brings ALLEGIANCE to life is phenomenal. A healthy mix of professional talent the mainland and some of the best local talent the island can offer, this cast shines in their acting, singing, and choreography. Lei’s Kei and Phong’s Sammy lead brilliantly, both tasked with the most amount of songs (which are difficult to do musically, more on this later) as well as being the two protagonists in this story, which means they carry intense amounts of emotional burdens (and they do it with aplomb). Seki is lovable and warm as Ojii-chan, contrasting to the understandably hardened Sam he bookends the production with. Yamamoto’s Tatsuo rounds out the Kimura’s, aptly embracing the fiercely stubborn, quiet, and grounded father Tatsuo is. Miguel Cadoy III’s Frankie Suzuki entertains, and his character is a very interesting foll to Sammy’s gung-ho American patriotism while Kathleen Stuart’s Hannah Campbell’s humanity radiates from her performance, winning Sammy (and the audience) over as she has her own arc of learning to do what is right versus what she is told. Nekoba rounds out the principal cast, and he has the difficult job of portraying a character caught in seemingly dozens of no-win situations. Nekoba’s Mike Masaoka does not make the choices he makes and takes the sides he takes lightly, and his performance allows us to see the nuance of a man treading a tightrope. The rest of the cast should be applauded as well: Sharline Liu, Charles Mukaida, Melani Carrie, Austin Yoshida, Shayna Yasunaga, KoDee Martin, Lauren Cabrera, Kyle Malis, and Kailee Brandt. Together, they cycle between citizens of the community, members of the concentration camp, soldiers, and other elements and personalities of the world during WWII. The ensemble does not slack- they musically ring triumphant, and the choreography Christine Yasunaga is tightly executed. The entire cast works as a unit, elevating the stories they are telling with heart.
The team working with Mitri is wonderful as well, making Hawaii Theatre look even more stunning than it already is. Michelle Bisbee’s set design is wonderful, as select set pieces remain for the whole show yet are still transformed into multiple locations effortlessly, thanks to Janine Myers’ lighting and DeAnne Kennedy’s scenic art working in tandem with her. The locations felt alive, and Joseph Governale’s projection design contributed to that, with small but choice additions that affected things like the weather. It should be said Governale’s projections throughout the whole show are crisp and well done, and sometimes surprise you but always add and heighten the points of time they do surface. Jennifer Hart and Trudy Hodenfield’s costumes paired with Lisa Ponce de Leon’s hair and makeup come together for a cast that looks and feels straight out of the posters and pictures you see of people living through WWII, making the show a living photograph at times. Kainoa Jarrett’s sound design is booming and well-served. Finally, I mentioned the cast sounds phenomenal, with their top shelf singing- Kip Wilborn has clearly worked hand in hand with them as the musical director, and his work shines with them.
The only contention I have with this show is the production’s music, which seems odd since I’ve been praising the singing for two paragraphs. I can recognize the talents of the performers, but I also recognize Kuo’s music is not the best. Technically, the songs serve your typical “musical theatre” purpose, either advancing the plot, voicing a pivotal thought or decision with a character, or both. However, none of the songs really linger; they sound generic at times and at others seem superfluous. Again, my contention lies with the music of the show; it is easy to recognize the quality of work being done onstage. Perhaps if the show had not been a musical? The subject matter is heavy, but surely not too heavy for a straight drama. One of the only pieces that stayed with me (and may for you as well) was the “442 Victory Swing,” which was probably because of where it comes in the production and how uncomfortable it is to sit through. It succeeds in dropping this stone in your stomach as you come to terms with how grisly and bold-faced history can be.
The story of the Kimura’s, the plight of the Japanese-Americans during WWII, these are important stories to remember. The JACL has an insert in the program, pleading American to not let history repeat itself. Yet, it is difficult to do so when those in power allow fear and racism to dictate their actions, making America as an institution keep and separate those seeking asylum within its walls. If you have not watched this amazingly performed, culturally important piece of theatre yet, there are still four opportunities to do so. Tickets are still being sold online here for performances today (Saturday) at 2:00pm and 7:00pm as well as Sunday at 2:00pm and 7:00pm.