Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

Allegiance
SpeakEasy Stage Company
Review by Nancy Grossman


The Cast of Allegiance
Photo by Nile Scott Studios
It has been more than 72 hours since I left the Boston Center for the Arts after the press opening of SpeakEasy Stage Company's East Coast premiere of Allegiance, the 2015 Broadway musical inspired by the true childhood experience of TV/film actor and social media icon George Takei (Mr. Sulu on "Star Trek"), and I still can't stop thinking about it. More to the point, it haunts me because it tells the story of the 120,000 Japanese-Americans who were forced by the United States government to leave their homes for relocation in internment camps following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Some were American citizens, some were not, but their only "crime" was bearing resemblance to the architects of that attack. Swept up in a national wave of irrational, racist scapegoating, their lives and livelihoods were severely disrupted, their loyalty was questioned, and the government drove a divisive wedge between those who wanted to prove their patriotism and those who chose to resist.

Takei was five years old when his family was taken from their Los Angeles home and transported to a camp in Arkansas. He has made it his life's mission to raise awareness about the internment and keep the history alive. Realizing that the best way to do that is by telling human stories, and the best vehicle for doing that is theater, Takei collaborated with Jay Kuo (book, music and lyrics), and Mark Acito and Lorenzo Thione (book) on this musical. SpeakEasy Stage Company Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault included Allegiance in this season because it sheds light on that dark period, as well as serving as a warning in our current political climate.

It is a beautifully told story of a chilling, horrific incident that packs an emotional wallop in Daigneault's stunning production. As is often the case, the intimate setting of the Roberts Theatre draws the audience directly into the heart of the piece, almost making us feel that we share the crowded, intolerable conditions of the prisoners at the camps. We certainly feel the sadness, confusion and fear of the Kimura family and others like them when they are rounded up, allowed to take with them only what they can carry. Yet, we are lifted by their sense of honor and pride, their strong communal bonds, and their belief in standing up for what is right. The division between those who feel it is best not to fight the storm versus those who demand fair and equal treatment by their government creates the compelling conflict at the center of Allegiance, and it is swept along by Kuo's lush score.

In a small space just off the stage, music director Matt Stern (keyboard) conducts a crisp quartet of musicians who provide a full, rich sound to complement the vocals. Daigneault has a strong cast of SpeakEasy newcomers whose combined voices give beauty and power to ensemble numbers, including "Wishes on the Wind," "Gaman," "Our Time Now," and "Still A Chance." The songs are key to driving the story and informing our knowledge of the characters and their relationships.

Sammy Kimura (Sam Tanabe) distinguishes himself from his father and the family traditions ("What Makes a Man"), rallies the community to his point of view ("Get in the Game"), and expresses his forbidden desire ("With You"). His sister Kei (Grace Yoo) shares a tender moment ("Ishi Kara Ishi") with her grandfather Ojii-chan (Gary Thomas Ng), discovers her strength and breaks free of self-imposed constraints ("Higher"), and cements a bond of solidarity with nurse Hannah Campbell (Melissa Geerlof), an enemy turned sister ("Stronger Than Before"). Kei's love interest Frankie Suzuki (Tyler Simahk) displays his intensity in the political ("Paradise," "Resist") and the personal ("This Is Not Over," "Nothing in Our Way").

Allegiance shows great respect for the elders and traditional values, but the focus is on the younger generation stepping up, not unlike the Parkland youth, to fight for what they believe. The wise, dignified grandfather is cared for and honored, and Tatsuo Kimura, the father (Ron Domingo), holds the family together with a steady hand, until Sammy defects. While his character's passion and rebellious attitude are warranted, Tanabe fails to convey it convincingly because his portrayal is stiff and he sounds like he's straining vocally. Yoo's crystalline voice flows, and she easily increases its power when needed. She makes her character sympathetic and credible, and she has delightful chemistry with Simahk. His performance stands out as he inhabits the brash, yet charming, Frankie, and really sells his musical numbers.

If there is a villain of the piece, other than the U.S. government, it is Mike Masaoka (Michael Hisamoto), National Secretary of the Japanese American Citizens' League, who serves as spokesperson for the community. He genuinely believes that he is serving in the best interests of his people, but makes such ham-handed remarks as, "In a time of war it is necessary to forego some civil liberties to keep America safe," and "...grateful that we are wards of government in this troubled time." Hisamoto captures the character's sense of righteousness, as well as the occasional shadow of self-doubt that crosses his face as circumstances evolve and he is seen in a less-than-favorable light.

Geerlof is sympathetic as the camp nurse, stuck in a position where she is allowed to do very little for the well-being of the internees, while fighting her own instincts to give good care, as well as struggling with her burgeoning feelings for Sammy. On the other side of the coin, Ryan Mardesich plays the bullying army guard who seems to revel in causing any discomfort he can. He displays his range, playing all of the caucasian characters (hakujin) and shows off his dulcet tones as the Big Band Singer. Completing the ensemble are the Maruyama family (Eymard Cabling, Elaine Hom, Isaac Phaman Reynolds, Kendyl Yokoyama), the Gotos (Ben Oehlkers, Micheline Wu), and Mrs. Tanaka (Paige Clark). Yokoyama also serves as assistant to the choreographer, contributing traditional Japanese choreography to augment the energetic and evocative 1940s era dances by Ilyse Robbins.

The stage of the Roberts Theatre is set with moveable pieces and concealed compartments to suggest different areas of the camp, such as the residences, the nurse's office, the mess hall, and a garden, as well as a battlefield, an apartment, and government offices. Eric Levenson's scenic design is augmented by Daniel H. Jentzen's lighting design and Andrew Duncan Will's sound design. Miranda Kau Giurleo's costumes range from conservative, '40s styles and traditional Japanese dress to authentic military attire. Props design is by Abby Shenker, fight choreography is by Sarah Elizabeth Bedard, and Lee Nishri-Howitt is the dialect coach.

Some of the themes in Allegiance are universal, such as family dynamics, forbidden love, war, loss and redemption. That the musical is inspired by a true story gives it authenticity and heart; that it concerns a shameful, dark period in our history gives it gravitas. Life in these United States in 2018 gives it urgency.

Allegiance, through June 2, 2018, at SpeakEasy Stage Company, The Roberts Studio Theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.SpeakEasyStage.com.

Book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione; Music and Lyrics by Jay Kuo, Directed by Paul Daigneault, Music Direction by Matthew Stern, Choreography by Ilyse Robbins; Scenic Design, Eric Levenson; Costume Design, Miranda Kau Giurleo; Lighting Design, Daniel H. Jentzen; Sound Design, Andrew Duncan Will; Props Design, Abby Shenker; Additional Choreography, Kendyl Yokoyama; Fight Choreographer, Sarah Elizabeth Bedard; Dialect Coach, Lee Nishri-Howitt; Production Stage Manager, L. Arkansas Light; Assistant Stage Manager, Katherine Humbert

Cast (in alphabetical order): Eymard Cabling, Paige Clark, Ron Domingo, Melissa Geerlof, Michael Hisamoto, Elaine Hom, Ryan Mardesich, Gary Thomas Ng, Ben Oehlkers, Isaac Phaman Reynolds, Tyler Simahk, Sam Tanabe, Rachel Wirtz, Micheline Wu, Kendyl Yokoyama, Grace Yoo


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