If the wild success of Hamilton has taught us anything, it’s that history—whole chunks of goopy, complicated history—can light up a stage in entertaining, delightful ways. In musical form, no less. So long as said history is presented with verve, wit, and a whiff of something different, audiences will happily pay to sit down and get an education.
That said, something tells me that the producers of Allegiance were feeling a few of Lin Manuel Miranda’s thermal gusts when they green-lighted this adaptation of George Takei’s childhood experiences in Japanese-American internment camps.
If Hamilton cooks its historical meat over an open flame, then Allegiance is a microwave dinner. Where the first utilizes searing, 21st Century techniques to break down the American Revolution, the second feels more like a musical from the 50’s about life in the 1940’s.
The talented casting is mostly wasted. Producers pulled out the stops casting Lea Salonga (a Tony and Olivier-winning songstress who voiced not one, but two Disney princesses) alongside honey-dipped national treasure George Takei, but he’s utterly predictable as a wily old coot of a grandfather. Anyone familiar with Star Trek or Takei’s hundreds of guest spots on Howard Stern knows that “charming” isn’t exactly a stretch for the man.
Other tired stand-by’s abound. A pair of star-crossed lovers? Check. Alienated loved ones and inevitable family reconciliations? Of course. A character that goes off to war, resulting in a regrettable onstage battle? It was cooler when Rushmore did it. Nothing surprises, but what’s more, nothing discomforts, which is a shame in itself.
The subject matter demands discomfort. During WWII, our own government incarcerated more than 150,000 Japanese-Americans, most of whom were born in the US. (You should already know that, but just in case you didn’t, Allegiance spends a majority of its interminable first act catching you up.) I mean, this was some true blue Big Brother shit. And it’s easy to see why this story should be told today: history repeats itself, and grumblings from the heartland indicate that we might not be that far off from “waiting camps” for all of our immigrants and so-called “anchor babies,” so it’s good to be reminded about our past mistakes. With Allegiance, though, you get the feeling that someone didn’t want audiences to dig too deep.
That’d still be kind of excusable if the songs held up. As it is, there just aren’t that many memorable ones. No earworms, no powerhouse numbers. There’s way too much gaman (Japanese for “suffering with dignity”) in the show’s movement and staging for anything to stick after the show.
The show’s material is obviously close to Takei’s heart for personal reasons; I just wish it could’ve sustained the subtle, haunting effect of its portrayal of the atomic bomb: characters in darkness, pierced by sharp shards of light, almost silently chanting while small images of explosions happen amongst them. That was a sole instance of the material living up to the subject matter. That was an instance of the show daring to grapple with the urgency of history as it must have unfolded real-time, with terrifying, seismic significance.