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Allegiance and one of its stars: Telly Leung
Reviews by Rob Lester

Let's consider the cast album for Allegiance, closing this month on Broadway, plus a solo effort from a shining actor-singer in its cast, Telly Leung.


Broadway Records

Serious musicals that force us to face the truths of uglier periods in our history, such as the shame of American slavery (the recent Amazing Grace) and now the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II in Allegiance, are hardly fun, toe-tapping pick-me-ups as live experiences or albums. The agonies and futility of war in Les Misérables and Miss Saigon can be harrowing, but remind us that hope and heroics can still thrive when things look bleak. And so can romantic love, as the specter of death and lovers' separations make the stakes feel higher and life and freedom more precious. While Allegiance's longest period covered is when its main figures are in the camps they are ordered into or serving in wartime, the cast album listening experience is brightened by some sweet and ardent romance and, yes, some catchy melodies (the frisky, ingratiating "I Oughta Go" and the pastiche dance band number "Victory Swing"). Stirring and soaring singing come via numbers that center on being brave in battle or strong enough to "Resist" and carrying on with head-held-high dignity (the mantra expressed in the Japanese term "Gaman").

The story is inspired by top-billed George Takei's real-life experiences of being in one such camp in his youth. That knowledge hovers over any acquaintance with the material and intensifies an already tear-inducing tale, but some of the music makes it majestic and the survival and strengthening of the human spirit is powerfully presented and performed. Neither sugar-coated nor full of guilt-laden preachiness and heavy soap opera, it is simply a very human story with emotions in high relief. While there are certainly times when things feel transparently manipulative in dramatic or orchestral builds, and some grand-scale soap opera threatens to flood in, much of it is heartrending and cathartic.

Jay Kuo's songs, both grand and graceful, receive committed and especially earnest performances by the cast. Humor and irony are rather like endangered species here, but there is charm in some lighter musical episodes. More often it is stirring or redolent of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object in clashes of generations and personal politics, values, and priorities. Much of the tension, drive, and movement are provided by the orchestrations and arrangements by Lynne Shankel (Cry-Baby, 2006 Company revival, and the annual Carols for a Cure Christmas albums for Broadway Cares). Crisp percussive accents, swells, and tonal colors suggesting the Japanese delicacy and understatement in music all inform and power the numbers. Passion throbs. The orchestra feels bigger than just the dozen players named, but one is on synthesizer which can give the illusion of a thicker aural carpeting.

Takei is not heard singing much, although he lends gravitas and melancholy playing two roles: the older Sam looking back on his life and Sam's own grandfather. Young Sammy is the dynamic Telly Leung who bites into his character's confrontational, strong-willed moments with similarly uncompromising commitment. This is relieved by the aforementioned playful song of attraction "I Oughta Go" with the appealing Katie Rose Clarke, and a period-right sweetheart of a love ballad on the radio, "With You," is adopted as "their" special song. One high point is the peppy number suggesting a spirit-building group activity of playing baseball (the enlivening second half of "Get in the Game" in which he leads other cast members with contagious enthusiasm).

Leung holds attention with his focused work asserting Sammy's character and personal declaration of independence as he finds himself and starts to refine how he'll define "What Makes a Man" as a U.S. Army soldier, rejecting his father's views ("He wants me to keep my mouth shut/ But I swear from this day forward/ I am going with my gut! ... For all our sakes/ I'll do what it takes/ I must be my own man"). There's an underlying vulnerability in Leung's portrayal that make him sympathetic even at his most obstinately unyielding and harshly accusatory stances.

Lea Salonga as Sammy's sister Kei has a satisfying if somewhat broadly outlined character arc. We meet her first as the spirit of her just-deceased self urging the older, resistant Sam to revisit his painful past and make amends. Then, we flash back to the 1940s when she is a seemingly carefree, devoted sister/daughter participating in the optimism-drenched tradition of making "Wishes on the Wind." As the story moves on, she goes from nervous and cautious to bolder and self-empowering ("Higher," using a child's swing as the metaphor for determination). Salonga, in her disarming way with her crystal and open sound, brings beauty to the vocal lines in her solo sections and enrich harmonies when joined by other voices. Her character experiences devoted love. She's partnered with Michael K. Lee who matches her nicely and they effectively sing a rather traditional duet pledging their love with "This Is Not Over" while others pledge Allegiance to America in the war or to their own moral code or older traditions—or some combination thereof. While the title of the show is well chosen, the resulting title song is not the stirring highlight we'd hope for or expect. It is more functional in laying the out the differing points of view, with the bulk of it going to Christòpheren Nomura as the siblings' father.

Big-size themes of family, loyalty, and moral codes—and, of course, rhapsodic love—go a long way to making the specific connect with us in a more generalized way. The lyrics referencing characters by name and plot points, or simply musicalizing back-and-forth dialogue, lock some songs into the dilemmas of the story, not letting them step out on their own to have a life outside the show. Some spoken lines from the book by songwriter Kuo with Marc Acito and Lorenzo Thione are integrated within tracks and help us understand the dynamics of the story, even as we may find fault with uneven material with some blander rhyme choices and less than fresh ways of articulating familiar themes. A one-page synopsis fills us in on the plot's details and clarifies motivations.

In the liner notes, Takei's articulate four-paragraph explanation of his memory-charged mission to "ensure that the mistakes of the past are never forgotten and never repeated" is a motivator to explore this, even though the medicine may be a bitter pill to have to swallow. But the side effects of enlightenment and eye-opening lessons about "endurance with dignity" are well worth it.


Yellow Sound Label

You can't keep a good man down—likewise his spirits. Bright tenor Telly Leung, who has released a couple of earlier solo CDs reviewed in this column over the last several years, has become increasingly familiar from his work in the shows and cast albums of revivals of Godspell, Flower Drum Song, currently finishing up the run of Allegiance, and time on TV's "Glee."

Songs for You has a pop sheen and his trademark sunny spirits. The "You" of the title becomes the various individuals and groups to whom he dedicates tracks: his true love, his TV fans, his castmates, students, Billy Porter, even, in the case of a number from the 1980s, to "anyone who's ever owned a cassette." The album title also references the Leon Russell-written "A Song for You," which for a while was the go-to number for many singers with long histories, from Lena Horne to Jack Jones. Here it is the closer and weaves in bits of "Everything Must Change" effectively, with the help of well-used, skillful background singers Danny Calvert and Crystal Monee Hall, who pop up on other selections, too.

While the tracks represent eclectic sources, Leung's stated goal of making them his own through fresh takes—arranged by musical director/pianist Gary Adler, several in combination with the singer—is generally achieved. While they may not feel definitive, they do come off as refreshingly not the paint-by-the-numbers tired copies. Stephen Sondheim's "Being Alive," for example, doesn't receive the frequent approach of chest-beating, ultra-needy cry of pain. It's more thoughtful than angsty desperation. As a result, we feel like we want to come to him rather than him just reaching out wildly or seeking us (or just anybody). Sure, it's less intensely dramatic, but inviting on its own terms. And this less forceful take may be especially companionable as a recording instead of live concert blast.

Jerry Herman's "I Am What I Am" from La Cage aux Folles gets a style make-over, clothed in a musical fabric not suggesting the drag garb of the original character or the show tune drive of Herman or even the gay out-and-proud anthem approach per se. Decidedly contemporary in musical wrappings, like "Being Alive," it is less in your face than on your team. It weaves in "I Have Nothing" heard in the film The Bodyguard. Another combo is "Send Me on My Way" (Rusted Root) with Violet's "On My Way," accidentally credited solely to Jeanine Tesori, leaving out the name of lyricist Brian Crawley. It's a strong and invigorating entry.

The most arresting and lovely part of the Leung voice to me is the higher tenor register pure notes than can also float into a pretty falsetto. Unfortunately, that side is rarely exploited here or even present more than briefly. Too often, we get a more pinched sound which, while not quite keening or strident, is not so gentle on the ear. When stage characters require him to be fierce or forceful, his voice can show strength and depth; here, the more belting tones as songs gain power or speed aren't always showing his sound at its more pleasingly effective. But when he keeps it simple and effective, like the opening, unhurried a capella phrases of Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind," the impact is the thrill of beauty meeting a thoughtful soul.

While some of the material may be lighter weight, youth-infused fun numbers (he just turned 31, but still seems charmingly boyish), it's enjoyable and he sounds like he is having fun. Allegiance fans will be especially interested in "Second Chances," cut from that score (its post-flashback finale is about life giving one a second chance to review decisions, but only shares that thought and a few words with the latter.) "Second Chances" is an intelligent, if not immediately accessible, piece of material, in some ways more articulate and poetic than some songs that stayed in that show. And, having absorbed and explored the world of its story and characters, it feels the most layered and complex in created character of this set.

Getting away from the "Me"-centric stance of many songs, two convincingly work as supportive encouragement to others in their stated messages and conveyed go-for-it inducements. One, "You Gotta Be"—again, the song list names just one writer, Ashley Ingram, while it is generally acknowledged to have co-writing input from Des'ree [Weekes], who recorded it first—is a catchy treat. The other is the older urge to be yourself in music and/or life, "Make Your Own Kind of Music" (by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil). Earlier versions by (Mama) Cass Eliot and separate recordings by siblings Roslyn Kind and Barbra Streisand emphasized the lively beat and bounce with the philosophy. Interestingly, Telly's take is slower, more thoughtful, adding weight and a kind of mentoring parent bird gently urging the babe to fly from the nest. Other versions have made me feel it was more about the preacher of the lyric really wanting and needing to be the one to do it his/her way.

This is another Yellow Sounds Label CD where its head man and producer Mike Croiter sits not just in the booth but at the drum set, to great effect. He's joined by musical theatre familiar name Mary Ann McSweeney on bass, along with Brian Koonin on guitar and Clay Ruede on cello, among others joining Adler, who is co-producer, on piano.

Telly Leung seems to shed his skin and easily slip into new ones, musically, and always comfortable in his own skin and recognizably Telly.

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