Takei, at 78, Boldly Goes into a Painful Family History

“Allegiance” is the new Broadway musical inspired by “Star Trek” alum George Takei’s experience in Japanese internment camps during World War II. It’s a poignant and well-crafted story, with a title that operates on multiple levels.

Here, allegiance refers to the loyalty we feel for country. And, obligations we have to family and friends. And finally, truths we live by as individuals—the determination to stand our ground when life sours. All these ideas are woven smartly into the often-stirring drama now at the Longacre Theatre.

“Allegiance” marks the return to Broadway of Lea Salonga, the “Miss Saigon” vet. It’s got a star turn by lead Telly Leung, a “Glee” actor who carries a great burden as Sammy Kimura, a young American whose earlier preoccupations become trivial when his family is forced from their home after Pearl Harbor.

It also marks the Broadway debut of Takei, 78, whose 2011 toe-dip into social media—taken to draw attention to “Allegiance,” then preparing for its world premiere in San Diego—made him into a modern advocate for Asian-American and LGBT causes.

The story told here may not be one with which many Americans are familiar, or particularly want to be. It’s uncomfortable. During the war, the U.S. government relocated 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent to internment camps. Takei’s family was among them.

“Allegiance” was born during a chance 2008 encounter Takei had with the men who would become responsible for its music and book. It marks the Broadway directorial debut of Stafford Arima (MCC’s “Carrie”), whose own father was interned during the war. Audiences may find some of Arima’s choices polarizing, especially as they pertain to depiction of the U.S. military.

For its unusual subject matter, “Allegiance” mirrors the structure of classic musicals, with operatic ballads and humorous diversions (“I Oughta Go” offers one fanciful bit of slapstick). “Wishes on the Wind” is a strong curtain-raiser that introduces characters as they celebrate harvest by hanging wishes on a traditional wish tree.

Takei is Ojii-chan (“Grandpa”). Sammy Kimura (Leung) is an unfocused young adult, raised by his older sister, Kei (Salonga). Their stoic father is played by Christopheren Nomura, a Grammy-nominated baritone.

When war comes, Sammy tries to enlist, but is rebuffed by a recruiting officer: “A Jap is a Jap.” Locations vary, but most of the show is set at one camp, in the shadow of a horrifically dusty Wyoming mountain. There, Sammy meets a well-meaning Omaha-blonde nurse (an endearing Katie Rose Clarke) and becomes determined to prove his loyalties to the United States.

At the same time, Kei begins a relationship with Frankie (Michael K. Lee, in a performance people will be talking about), who will evolve into an anti-U.S. government leader of the camp’s resistance.

A critical plot point revolves around loyalty questionnaires, which asked internees if they would be willing to serve America in the armed forces.

Other scenes play out in Washington, D.C., where an advocate for Japanese-American civil rights (Greg Watanabe) makes fateful decisions about the future of his flock, and in battle, where Sammy is injured, anointed a hero and turned into a propaganda tool for the U.S. Army.

Characters are fleshed out and music feels polished. In an expressive first-act song, Leung struggles with “What Makes a Man.” Later, Salonga has a gorgeous solo, “Higher,” about reaching for our dreams.

As for Takei, he gets out of his own way here, to potent effect. As Ojii-chan, he helps convey the idea of “Gaman,” a Zen Buddhist term that means “endurance with dignity,” a guiding principle pertinent to the daily lives of the interned. In scenes that bookend “Allegiance,” set a half-century after most of the story, Takei plays Sammy as an elderly man.

A mystery that isn’t fully clarified until the end is Sammy’s foreshadowed estrangement from Kei.

“Allegiance” is likely to spur questions about whether the actions of the U.S. government are overstated … or sugarcoated. American soldiers are generally played as villainous. There is a relevance to the current political climate concerning immigrants that rings loud and clear.

“Allegiance” will have you asking why Japanese-Americans were interned as a class, when Germans and Italians were done so only intermittently. It’s meant to be funny when one of Sammy’s buddies says: “We’re at war with Italy, but nobody put Joe DiMaggio in a camp.” The line indeed gets a laugh, but it’s gallows humor.

“Allegiance,” with an open-ended run at the Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St. Tickets: $65-$149. Call 212-239-6200.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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