Book: Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione
Music and Lyrics: Jay Kuo
Director: Tara Overfield Wilkinson
There has been a spate of delayed UK premieres of late with Hampstead Theatre leading the way with the 2014 play The Art of Illusion imported from France and 2012’s Sons of the Prophet from America. Now, Charing Cross Theatre is hosting the first UK staging of George Takei’s Allegiance, which was initially performed in 2012 and transferred to Broadway in 2015. An occasionally bilingual and deeply sentimental musical, this dramatisation of Takei’s own experience of US internment during the Second World War is a surprising, if rather passive, story that prioritises romance over grit.
When the Japanese attack Pearl Harbour, the US Government decides to round-up all Japanese-Americans and put them in camps supervised by military personnel. Enduring horrific conditions with almost no access to medicine, the prisoners try to endure peaceably. But, as a proud American, young Sammy Kimura wants to prove his loyalty to his country and when the chance to sign-up presents itself at last, he cannot resist. But will his sacrifice be appreciated by the country that still sees him as an enemy and can his family ever reconcile themselves to his overt patriotism?
Much has changed in the presentation of war on stage in the last decade and when Daniel Evans staged South Pacific in 2021, a new way of engaging with America’s Second World War bombast came with it, as Evans drew out the darker themes of occupation, cultural appropriation and entitlement in the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. It’s a shame that director Tara Overfield Wilkinson hasn’t take that same modern revisionist approach to George Takei’s Allegiance that focuses more on two sweet wartime love stories than the experience of US citizens treated like prisoners of war.
It is a fascinating and shocking story however, snippets of which come through in this staging. There is reference to the seizing of property and goods by the US State, the failure to provide any kind of medical treatment or suitable accommodation in the camps, of guard brutality and disrespect as well as the growing rumblings of discontent that emerged. George Takei’s Allegiance also starts to look at the divisions within the Japanese American community between those like Sammy who are fiercely loyal and his sister’s lover Frankie who resists the draft in protest at their treatment in the camps, while further separation occurs between the elders who advocate submissive acceptance and endurance, and the young members of the story who want to fight back.
But the musical never digs deep enough into these questions to understand the changing motivations of the characters or the real complexity of their dual heritage and blended cultural experience. Instead, there are wild tonal leaps from brief moments of tragedy to wistful romance, or at one point from the bombing of Hiroshima to seconds later a swinging victory party without giving quite enough time for those decisive and disturbing moments to properly sink in. The love stories are sweet enough, but they could be from any Second World War musical.
George Takei is clearly thrilled to take his show on tour and his dual role here as the older Sam who is riven by tragedy as well as his own adorable grandpa Ojii-Chan in the flashback scenes is enjoyable. Telly Leung is excellent as Young Sammy capturing all the patriotic fervour and desire to do something while Aynrand Ferrer is in particularly fine voice as sister Kei. Mark Anderson adds texture as almost all of the bad white Americans with a number of rapid costume changes and accents.
This is a faithful staging and there are some really great performances here that help this show along, but the musical has found ways to engage with more difficult content in the last five years that occasionally make George Takei’s Allegiance feel a tad old-fashioned. But it’s still important to see work that challenges the accepted narratives of glorious war and changes our perceptions of untarnished heroism in this era.
Runs until 8 April 2023