L.A. Times review critical of “Allegiance”

Opening night at The Old Globe Theater
First-nighters await the opening curtain for “Allegiance.” Nice set.

The first reviews have come in from the press opening for Allegiance. As expected, the San Diego Union-Tribune and the North County Times are carried off by the emotion of melodrama (“bring your Kleenex, you’re going to need it,” one says with glee). However, the review by Anne Marie Welsh in the Los Angeles Times, “‘Allegiance’ gives Japanese internment a soft focus,” is especially clear-eyed about the material itself:

The musical premieres at the Old Globe as a mild story of broken family ties, not a judgment of U.S. mistakes related to the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s. … “Allegiance” presents a surprisingly mild story of family fractures, not an indictment of American failures. … Though peppered with promising scenes and powerfully sung by the largely Asian American cast, “Allegiance” retreats from the challenge of its own material and hasn’t found a consistent focus, tone or musical idiom. For all its historical reach and welcome significance, the book (by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione) drifts into two generic romances and in the second act meanders into sentimental warblings that family is “what really matters.” … Mike Masaoka (Paolo Montalban), head of the Japanese American Citizens League, the show’s sole historical figure, (is) here caricatured. … (T)heir show needs a sharper emotional focus and musical edge to match its bold subject.

There may be a reason for the fuzziness of the show’s focus. Whatever artistic aspirations they may have, Broadway shows are by their nature commercial ventures: they have to sell the tickets week to week to pay the cast and keep the doors open. Based on the show’s synopsis, video clips, and reports from preview audiences and first-nighter’s, the dramatic arc of this show appears calculated to shift the audience’s attention away from the actions of the U.S. government — the general who lied about military necessity, the army major who was the architect of mass eviction and incarceration — and onto a straw man: the show’s caricature of “Mike Masaoka.”

Make no mistake,  the real Mike and the real JACL bear plenty of responsibility for waiving Japanese American rights at the height of war and racial hysteria, and Mike in particular for acting as a confidential informant for the government (see the evidence on the DVD extended interview with Prof. Roger Daniels).

But by setting up Masaoka as the antagonist of the piece, the show gets to take the focus off wartime America’s responsibility for accepting the mass eviction and incarceration, lest the predominantly white New York theater audience for whom this work is intended squirm in their seats – especially in a city just 11 years removed from its own 21st century experience of a Pearl Harbor.

From all accounts the focus on Mike as the villain has the emotional effect, intended or unintended, of letting the government off the hook, as if to say, “Look at Mike, he was the culprit, not the generals or the bureaucrats.”

This portrayal was especially strong in early drafts of the musical’s script, and the alarms went up after community pre-screenings of a videotaped workshop performance. However, the creators brought in a new collaborator to rewrite the book, and a first-nighter who provided the two photos offers this contrary view:

“(A friend) who had not seen the pre-screenings came away a bit shocked at how he (Mike) was portrayed. This was her first time to see the show, so she had nothing to compare it to.  So I think she was surprised by the musical portraying Mike Masaoka in such a negative light. In the end, we see George yelling at the spirit of Masaoka “You son of a bitch!”… Wow…

“It is interesting -I have seen the pre-screenings so I came away thinking the representation of Mike Masaoka is much more balanced now. He is not the villain as originally scripted. In fact, at times he appears very uncertain, almost meek and indecisive. He is now a 26-year old thrust into all of this pressure and a bit unsure of what to do, trying to lead his people. We see him in uniform – grieving for his brother – trying to figure out what to do and sometimes struggling to remain strong.

“But at the end when the show suggests it was Mike that had the idea for a suicide battalion and George calls him an SOB, then I think it really leaves a sour taste in people’s mouths.  For me, since I had seen the earlier versions which were so bad, this current version is ironically very refreshing…”

DVD in gift shop
Shameless plug alert: The DVD that tells the real story of Frank Emi and the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee is available at The Old Globe gift shop.

More reaction is expected in the days ahead, so subscribe to new posts using the box in the column above and to the right, or leave your comment below. (Our DVD is now available in the Old Globe gift shop. Yes, next to the Lea Salonga CDs. Proving, as Brian Wilson sings on the Beach Boys reunion CD, that it’s a strange world after all.)

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