Allegiance, the new Broadway musical about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, begins and ends with a paean to forgiveness. The opening and closing lines and song refer to a standoff of more than 50 years between a brother and sister. It’s 2001, and a woman appears at Sam Kimura’s door to tell him that his long-estranged sister, Kei, has died. The ghost of Kei (powerhouse Lea Salonga) sings from the shadows: “A chance for forgiveness / After all these years gone by.… We used to be a family / In those days before / We were broken by the war / By the war.” In the frame of the story, she is addressing her brother; in the Longacre Theatre, she is addressing a contemporary American audience, metaphorically seeking reconciliation in the remembrance of a shameful national crime.
Quickly, the scene flashes back to 1941, when young Sammy (winsome tenor Telly Leung) arrives home from a lackluster year at college to his family’s artichoke farm in Salinas, California. Before we hear Franklin Roosevelt announce the “date that will live in infamy,” there’s just enough time for a harvest-festival number that both celebrates Japanese heritage and adheres to the standard construction of a conventional musical: a wishing-tree ritual serves as an occasion for the community elders, dressed in yukata, to perform a traditional dance, and (with typically banal lyrics) for the audience to hear “I Want” verses from Sammy (“I wish that I didn’t have to play the good son”), Kei (“I wish that I didn’t have to play the mother”), and the two in unison (“I’ve got to make a brand new start.… New dreams with new mysteries / Someday I’ll unravel them / New roads with new histories / Someday I will travel them.”)
The road they all soon end up taking is the forced one to a “relocation center” in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, where the primary action is set—and the sibling conflict is set off. Sammy, heeding the call of the Japanese American Citizens League to prove the community’s patriotism, enlists (after, that is, the JACL has convinced the United States to admit Japanese Americans to its ranks, albeit in a segregated unit) and proves himself heroic in battle. Kei, meanwhile, supports the men in the camp who resist the draft, refusing to serve as long as their relatives remain in detention. As schematically opposed as the Kimura kids are, they follow parallel paths, too. Both fall in love: Kei with Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee), who charms as he fervently leads the opposition to the draft; Sammy with Hannah Campbell (Katie Rose Clarke), a white nurse, whose empathy he awakens. The other two family members starkly represent other positions: the father, Tatsuo (royal baritone Christòpheren Nomura), declines to sign the infamous, catch-22 loyalty pledge presented to all adult internees and is sent to a stockade; the grandfather, Ojii-chan (adorable George Takei, who also does a gruff turn as 80-year-old Sam), tries to hang on and make the best of things, planting a garden in the desert. It’s the high commitment of the cast—especially of Takei, who inspired the project with his own childhood experience as an internee—that gives these mouthpieces any texture at all.
In general, the plot is cliché-ridden: a son trying to prove his worthiness to a demanding father, women cheering on their brave boyfriends, politics humanized into domestic dispute, historical facts pumped up to rouse emotion. (Among other exaggerations, the scene of arrival at the camp falsely shows Nazi-like separation processes; a key plot point hinges on a highly improbable gunshot.)