San Diego finds itself quite often referred to as L.A.'s little sister but it has quietly built itself a national reputation for developing some of the best theater on the West Coast. Hundreds of well known Hollywood and Broadway stars alike have spent part of their careers on stage in America's Finest City from Gregory Peck and Groucho Marx to Billy Crystal, Gary Sinise and Cynthia Nixon.
Once again Tinseltown and 42nd Street meet in the debut of "Allegiance," a new musical bound for Broadway playing at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.
Telling the story of those forced to live inside the Japanese internment camps during World War II, and based on LGBT activist and "Star Trek" legend George Takei's real-life experiences inside those camps, "Allegiance" is as much a story of love, family, and honor as it is of patriotism and allegiance and the fine line between them we can sometimes be forced to walk.
Blessed with one of the strongest casts I have seen on a stage in San Diego, "Allegiance" absolutely lives up to the hype this show has been producing for over nine months. Along with Takei whose career is now in its sixth decade, "Allegiance" also brings Tony-Award winner and Broadway icon Lea Salonga and rising star Telly Leung to the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage.
The story is centered on Sam Kimura (played early in life by Leung and later in life by Takei) and his sister, Kai (Salonga). Beginning just before the start of World War II, life seemed to hold a tremendous amount of promise for the Kimura family as a once struggling immigrant family finally finds its hard work paying off. The eventual bombing of Pearl Harbor and America entering the war changes all of that.
The Kimura family soon finds themselves losing their farm as well as the lives and dignity they spent a generation building. Forced to relocate to a prison-like camp near Heart Mountain, Wyoming the Kimuras and all of the new camp residents soon discover that they must choose between their heritage and their loyalty to the country in which they now live.
Salonga, best known for originating the role of Kim in "Miss Saigon" in both the West End and Broadway productions as well as her years in "Les Miserables," lends one of the most powerful soprano voices I've heard on stage to the part of Kim. Her performance was inspiring and left me aching to hear more.
Takei showed his range and versatility as an actor providing the most comical and most dramatic moments of the show. Before the show opened, Takei was candid in sharing with his fans his belief that his career has been building to this one defining moment. On opening night, it was obvious that this was the performance of his life and he absolutely nailed it.
Telly Leung, portraying a young Sam Kimura, brought such a sense of innocence and hope to a character whose life would be irrevocably changed. His onstage chemistry with his fellow actors, Salonga especially, was purely authentic. Paolo Montalban as Mike Masaoka, an unlikely villain, was inciting and incendiary and Michael K. Lee as Frankie Suzuki was an equally powerful rival and rebel against the relocation efforts.
This work has been in development since 2008 and was carefully crafted in every aspect leaving no room for error. Jay Kuo's music and lyrics, with deeply powerful songs, beautifully constructed harmonies, and moving ensemble pieces, are well advanced and on a level rivaling the music of "Les Miserables."
Marc Acito's, Jay Kuo's, and Lorenzo Thione's book gave an unobtrusive history lesson while never losing sight of the actual story. Stafford Arima carefully guided and fine-tuned this show right up until the Saturday before opening and his attention to detail was visible.
Andrew Palermo's choreography was meaningful, Alejo Vietti's costuming was fun and relevant (especially in recreating a nonfictional person like Masaoka), and Donyale Werle's scenic design was creative, earthy, and well conceptualized and executed. Not to be forgotten or overlooked, as is the case many times, is Lynne Shankel's musical supervision. The music was skilled, stirring, and seamless.
Any premiere musical has a number of traps and pitfalls to navigate and "Allegiance" avoids every single one. It was, unquestionably, some of the best theatre I have seen on stage in San Diego in a long time but with a cast and crew this talented, it had to be. Casual theatre-goers should note that this production is a historical piece and does not shy away from the history lessons but it is above all else a beautifully accomplished work that tells the story of a very dark, and rarely talked about, time in American history.
"Allegiance" runs through October 28 on the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage at The Old Globe in Balboa Park. For info or tickets call 619-23-GLOBE or visit www.TheOldGlobe.org.