A Lesson Still Relevant Today | “Allegiance” @ JACCC/East-West

Allegiance (Artani/JACCC/East-West)Last February (February 2017, that is), I wrote about the recent Broadway musical Allegiance: “As you may recall, I’ve been trying to predict shows that will be going on tour. One show I’ve really been interested in is Allegiance (FB), the Broadway musical that George Takei (FB) has been involved with about the Japanese Internment during WWII. The trade papers said a tour would materialize; but the show’s website doesn’t indicate one. I’ve always expected that a tour, if it materialized, would show up at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) — or that the Ahmanson, recognizing the Japanese community in Los Angeles, might mount a local production. But the Ahmanson hasn’t announced their season yet…” In the time since, two Ahmanson seasons have been announced, without Allegiance. The filmed Broadway production has been shown a few times; indeed, it was that filmed production that led to those February comments.

The truth is that the rumored Allegiance tour has not yet materialized. However, the folks behind East-West Players (FB) and the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC) (FB) felt that this show was of such importance to the Los Angeles and Southern California community that they didn’t wait for a tour — they opted to mount a local production of the show. Why Southern California? Perhaps because Los Angeles had a large Japanese-American community before World War II. Perhaps because that was one community severely impacted by the forced relocations. Perhaps because Southern California was home to two of the relocation camps, at Manzinar and Santa Anita Racetrack. Perhaps because Southern California remains home to a large Japanese-American community. Perhaps, just perhaps, because the fear that led to the relocations is far too prevalent today, and we, as a community, must say what the Jewish community has been saying for years: “Never Again!”. Perhaps because the best way to ensure this doesn’t happen again is to teach how we can so easily let fear lead us to treat fellow humans as “less than”, and how that no one is “less than”.

In any case, we saw the February 2017 rebroadcast, and shortly learned that East West Players would be mounting a production. When tickets went on sale with a small discount while we were on vacation last August, we snapped up a pair, not even waiting for Goldstar. We wanted to see this show that much. And last night, even though we had to rush to Orange County afterwards for a Man of the Year dinner, we saw the show again. And, as it did the first time I saw it — even through a headache — the show moved me to tears, and left me choked up with emotion. This is that powerful of a show. This is a show that is a “must see”. That you must see for the moving performances, the moving story, and the message that we must never fear our fellow countrymen and women.  As I wrote last February, this is “a time where there is an intense fear that a segment of our current population is dangerous just because of their religion, even when that segment are longtime American citizens. That makes the message of this show even more timely. Franklin Roosevelt, who was the President who signed the order, said the only thing we had to fear was fear itself. Then he gave into the fear, put US citizens into internment camps, tore away their livelihoods and homes, and regarded them as suspicious just because of their looks or their origins. It was wrong. It was unconstitutional. It was unthinkable. It must never never never happen again. And yet…. we have a large segment of our population living in fear of people because of their looks, their religion or their origin.”

Seeing the show just last February also allows me not to have to rewrite the synopsis; here’s what I wrote then, which hasn’t changed:

I guess I should tell you the story of Allegiance, which has a book by Marc Acito (FB),  Jay Kuo (FB), and Lorenzo Thione (FB), and music and lyrics by Jay Kuo (FB). According to Wikipedia, the genesis of the show was a chance meeting in the fall of 2008 of George Takei and his husband, Brad, who were seated next to Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione. They met again at another show, had some conversations, and this led to the notion of a musical based roughly on George’s experiences as a child in the internment camps.  I’ll also note you can find a more detailed version on the show webpage or wikipedia. In short, the show tells the story of the Kimura family from Salinas: the grandfather (Ojii-chan), the father (Tatsuo Kimura), and the two children: Sam and Kei. It starts with Sam, who is a WWII veteran, learning that his sister Kei has died. This opens us into the story and how the rift between them was created. We see the family running a farm and having an American life, and then the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor. In short order, based on an agreement between the government and the Japanese American Citizens League, led by Mike Masaoka, internment orders go out, and Japanese on the Pacific coast are ordered to camps. The Kimura family has to sell all but what they can carry, and they are taken by force to a camp, Heart Mountain, in the wilds of Wyoming. We learn of life in the camp through a series of scenes, and get to meet two characters in particular: Lt. Hannah Campbell, a nurse at the camp, and Frankie Suzuki, another internee at the camp. Campbell is drawn to Sammy; Frankie to Kei. As time passes, the JACL convinces the government to let Japanese Americans serve in the armed force, in a segregated unit, for suicide missions. A questionnaire goes out that includes loyalty questions so that only loyal Japanese Americans can serve. Tatsuo refuses to answer yes to those questions, and gets hauled away to Tule Lake. Sammy volunteers to serve (against his father’s wishes), and goes on to be one of the few survivors from that batallion. Frankie, on the other hand, resists; when drafted, he organizes resistance in the camp and is arrested. The creates the wedge that drives the story to its conclusion. I’ll let you read the synopsis for more, but you get the drift.

Given we’re in the era of identifying “fake news”, I’ll note that Wikipedia relates that the show does conflate experiences across different camps for dramatic effect, and adds a bit more military oversight than existed at Heart Mountain.

The production at the JACC drew people from all over, including Japan and Australia. It drew elderly Nisei who were at the camps, and it drew their children and grandchildren to learn their parents experiences. We had the opportunity to talk to some as we were exiting the show; they found this production as moving as I — someone who had family experiences of different camps and different segregation — did.

Having seen both the filmed version of the Broadway production and a live production allows that unique comparison: Was this equal to or better than the Broadway version? My wife felt that it was. In general, I did to. Having live performance is always better than filmed-live, there is an immediacy — a feedback loop with the audience — that you just don’t get with film. I have a recollection that the Broadway staging was less dependent upon projection; this production used a lot of rear and surrounding projection to establish the sense of place (as opposed to more traditional set pieces). Was that better? I’ll need to think on that. Certainly the performances were equal to or stronger.

Allegiance Cast MontageUnder the direction of Snehal Desai (FB), the cast formed a believable cohesive whole. Desai had a hard task: there were few hard staging set pieces; rather, there were abstract boxes and such, combined with projections. Desai was able to make his actors help the audience believe that what wasn’t there was there. This is something unique to live theatre: realism can be eschewed for the imagery of the mind. The mind can create the dust-filled interment camp much better than any collection of flats and props can. Desai made the abstract become real.

The acting ensemble was a mix of actors who had been in the Broadway production combined with other actors and local talent. Circles numbers (e.g., ①) refer to the numbers on the image to the right.

In the most prominent position — I hesitate to say lead because he wasn’t the lead actor in the performance of the story, although his character was a leading character — as ① George Takei (★FB) as Sam Kimura/Ojii-chan. As noted earlier, this story was driven by Takei’s personal story. He has shepherded and shaped this production from Day 0, and is almost synonymous with the story (and it will be interesting how this story continues beyond him). But here we are focused on his performance, and for those who are familiar with his work in his younger days (e.g., (cough) Star Trek (cough)), you see a different side of the man — a maturity of performance that is touching. He captures so many different sides of a person, from the embittered Sam at the beginning, the joyful and playful Ojii-chan, to the changed Sam at the end of the story. It is his journal that the audience takes in this story, and it will deeply move you. And that, I feel, is in large part to Takei’s performance, especially in the final scenes.

[As an aside, given that if you search Takei, this comes up: What about the sexual assault claim? He has denied it, and the story seems not to have continued since it first came out in November 2017. More importantly, more claims since the first have not come out, indicating there was not a continuing pattern even if a single incident occurred. I wouldn’t let those claims color the story being told, for this is too important of a story to let such claims derail it. They will resolve in time as they are meant to resolve. Separate the art from the artist, and judge this show for the overall strength of its ensemble and story.]

In what I would call the lead performance positions — capturing the younger characters during the war — are ③ Ethan Le Phong (★FB, FB) as Sammy Kimura and ② Elana Wang (★FB, FB) as Kei Kimura. Both were extremely strong and believable performers, with remarkable singing voices. Wang in particular must be singled out: she had to compete with the memory of Lea Salonga on Broadway, and I’m pleased to say that she met and exceeded the expectations there. Both were just delightful to watch and to listen to.

As the father of the Kimura clan, ⑦ Scott Watanabe (FB) had the correct measure of old-school Japan to his performance, He also had a wonderfully rich voice that he demonstrated in songs such as “Gaiman”. He has been involved with this production since its inception, and it shows.

As the love interests of the main characters, ⑥ Natalie Holt MacDonald (FB) as Hannah Campbell and ⑤ Eymard Cabling (FB) as Frankie Suzuki get a little more fleshing out than characters in the emsemble, but not much. We learn a little of what drives them from the story, but the real embodiment must come from the internal backstory the actor creates. I’m pleased to say the actors do this well; they also have strong singing voices and give a great performance. MacDonald captures well the youth and naivete that Campbell must have had, being thrust into a situation unlike what she expected. Similarly, Suzuki was pushed into a different situation and had to adapt: from pre-law student to resistor. Both actors captured this essence well.

The last major named character is the head of the JACL, Mike Masoaka, played by ④ Greg Watanabe (FB). Watanabe captured the officiousness of Masoaka well. The character (in the story) was placed in an untenable position, and a continuing question is whether he should have protested more, of whether he could have achieved something more equitable in that particular society and that particular time. Watanabe’s character also raises — to the contemporary audience — the question of whether we can do more to fight this from happening again. I think that Watanabe captures this well in his performance.

The remaining actors form an ensemble that is at times unnamed, and at times becomes various characters in the camps and the story. This group consisted of: ⑩ Cesar Cipriano (FB) [Ben Masaoka (Issei) / Johnny Goto]; ⑬ Sharline Liu (FB) [Mrs. Natsumi Tanaka (Issei)]; ⑪ Glenn Shiroma (FB) [Mr. Masato Maruyama (Issei)]; ⑮ Janelle Dote (FB) [Mrs. Kaori Maruyama (Issei), Dance Captain]; ⑭ Chad Takeda (FB) [Tom Maruyama (Nisei)]; ⑧ Miyuki Miyagi (FB) [Peggy Maruyama (Nisei)]; ⑨ Grace Yoo [Nan Goto (Issei)]; and ⑫ Jordan Goodsell (FB) [Hakujin]. All are strong, but Goodsell stands out in my memory because he gets the thankless job of representing all the military soldiers at Heart Mountain (in other words, the personification of “the bad guy/the government”). I also recall Dote’s performance (at least I think the character was Dote) during the baseball scenes. In general, the ensemble provided great background personifications, great singing, and great movement.

Speaking of movement, the choreography was by Rumi Oyama (FB) (who was in the ensemble on Broadway) and was much less the modern dance one sees on stage these days, and more what I presume to be stylized Japanese movement. Whatever it was, it was beautiful to watch and conveyed the story well.

The music, under the direction of Music Director Marc Macalintal (FB), with orchestrations by Lynne Shankel, was good and didn’t overpower. It was provided by Macalintal as conductor and primary keyboard and the following musicians: Jenny Chaney (FB) [Asst Music Director, Rehearsal Pianist, Keys 2]; Khris Kempis (FB) [Bass Guitar]; Rebecca Yeh (FB) [Cello]; Michael “Weeble” Boerum (FB) [Drums]; Richie Gonzaga (FB) [B♭ Trumpet, Flugelhorn]; John Jenkins [Trombone, Bass Trombone]; Yu-Ting Wu (FB) [Violin]; Phil Moore [Reed 1]; Hannah Leah Marcus [Reed 2]; and Anthony Villa [Reed 3].

Lastly, we turn to the production team. First, I’ll note this was not a Broadway tour or transfer. Most of the production design team were new to the how, so this really was a remounting and reimagining. Se Hyun Oh (FB)’s scenic design was sparse: a few colored lights onto which images could be projected, a similarly projection structure surrounding the stage; a vague building-drop, with the rest mostly brought to life through Adam Flemming (FB)’s projection design and Glenn Michael Baker (FB)’s property design. Although being sparse, it worked — providing the ability of theatre to bring many locales and places to life through the imagination and through performance, not through realistic image. The sense of time, place, and at points, horror, was amplified through Karyn Lawrence (FB)’s lighting design. Time, in terms of era, was conveyed through Halei Parker (FB)’s costume design, which seemed appropriately period, although I can’t speak to the more Japanese aspects of the costumes. As usual, Cricket S. Myers (FB)’s sound design was clear and crisp, and provided appropriate sound effects, reasonably on time. Rounding out the production team were: Cesar Cipriano (FB) [Fight Choreography]; Andy Lowe (FB[Allegiance Production Manager]; Bobby DeLuca [Aratani Production Manager]; Morgan Zupanski (FB[Production Stage Manager]; Jade Cagalawan (FB[Company Manager]; Nora DeVeau-Rosen (FB[General Manager]; Shen Heckel (FB[Assistant Director]; Lydia Runge (FB) [Asst. Stage Manager],

Allegiance continues at the Aratani Theatre at the JACCC until April 1, 2018. Go see it. This is a show you must not miss; it will move you, educate you, and enlighten you, all at the same time. Tickets are available through the East West Players online box office. $20 RUSH TICKETS to Allegiance – A New Musical are available via TodayTix app! Download the app & at 9AM every performance day, a limited number of $20 tickets will be available (first come, first served)!  Discount tickets may also be available on Goldstar.


Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB), and as of Friday, Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

Next weekend brings Steel Pier at the UCLA School of Television, Film, and Theatre (FB). The penultimate Friday of March was to bring Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), but that has shifted to June and that weekend brings only the joint TBH Brotherhood/MoTAS Mens Seder. The last weekend of March is currently open.

April looks to be a busy month. It starts with the Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB) on Thursday April 5, followed by Love Never Dies at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) [as an aside, there was just a great interview with Glen Slater, the lyricist of that show, on Broadway Bullet that is well worth listening to]. The second weekend brings A Man for All Seasons” at Actors Co-op (FB). The third weekend brings Bad Jews at The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB) on Friday, followed by The Hunchback of Notre Dame at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) (nee Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)) on Saturday, as well as our annual visit to the Original Renaissance Faire. The last weekend of April sees us travelling for a show, as we drive up to San Jose to see friends as well as Adrift in Macao at The Tabard Theatre Company (FB).

Continuing into May and June: The first weekend in May will bring School of Rock at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), with the following weekend bringing Soft Power  at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). The middle of May brings Violet at Actors Co-op (FB).  The last weekend will hopefully bring a Nefesh Mountain concert at Temple Ramat Zion; the weekend itself is currently open. June — ah, June. That, my friends, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), including The Story of My Life from Chromolume Theatre (FB). Additionally in June we’re seeing the postponed Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), The Color Purple at  the Hollywood Pantages (FB), and possibly Do Re Mi at MTW. The latter, however, is on a Sunday night in Long Beach, and so Fringing may win out. Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018!

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.