‘Allegiance’ Is Coming Home

Backstage at the Aratani Theatre with the team behind “Allegiance.” From left: Leslie Ito of the JACCC, Snehal Desai of East West Players, and Alison De La Cruz of the JACCC. The monumental task of bringing the Broadway musical to Little Tokyo has brought together two of the historic community’s core institutions. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

The Los Angeles premiere of “Allegiance” in February at the Aratani Theatre will be a homecoming for the Broadway musical.

The dramatization of the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans, told from the perspective of the fictional Kimura family, resulted from George and Brad Takei’s chance meeting in 2008 with Jay Kuo, who would later write the music and lyrics for “Allegiance,” and Lorenzo Thione, who would co-write the book for the musical with Kuo and Mark Acito.

With a story loosely based on George Takei’s childhood experiences in camp, the first reading of “Allegiance” was held at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo in 2009, followed by readings in New York in 2010 and a workshop at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego in 2011. The show premiered at the Old Globe in 2012 and was a box-office success.

Ethan Le Phong and Elena Wang will star as young Sammy Kimura and his sister Kei Kimura.

Takei’s dream of taking the show to Broadway was realized when “Allegiance” opened at the Longacre Theatre in November 2015. It closed in February 2016 after 148 performances. The show was recorded on film and screened in theaters nationwide in December 2016 and February 2017, with another showing set for Dec. 7.

The musical’s Los Angeles makeover is being overseen by Snehal Desai, producing artistic director of East West Players, who will direct; Leslie Ito, president and CEO of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center; and Alison De La Cruz, executive producer of the show and director of performing arts and community engagement at JACCC.

Between the San Diego and Broadway runs, extensive changes were made based on complaints and suggestions from the community, but Desai said, “We’re sticking pretty close to the Broadway version, so in terms of content it will be the same songs … What is being changed a little bit is a revisiting of the book. The cast size is going to be a little bit more concentrated. It’ll be cast size of 15,” down from 25 on Broadway. The number of musicians will be reduced from15 to 11.

“The only song that actually exists in the current show that existed throughout the life of the show is ‘Gaman,’” De La Cruz noted. “ … The birth of a new musical, an original idea, takes about 10 years … ‘Gaman’ is the only original song from the original Little Tokyo reading that happened so many years ago.

“From San Diego to New York there were some changes, but from New York to Los Angeles you’re going to see a different cast size, and we’re also excited about what Snehal and his design team are going to bring to the overall look of the show and how the Los Angeles look and concept will offer us another way to experience the story of ‘Allegiance’ and the multiple perspectives of Japanese American experiences within the historical moment.”

Even those who have seen the Broadway version live or on screen should check out the L.A. premiere, De La Cruz said. “We love that production, we honor that production, but … what we know about great stories and great plays is every time you do it, you learn something new. So we’re excited about what we can help audiences learn, experience, feel when they see this director and his vision, these designers and their creation, this company of artists and musicians in this house of the Aratani Theatre.”

Historical Sites

One unique aspect of the Little Tokyo production is that it’s a short distance from sites directly connected to the incarceration. The former Nishi Hongwanji building on First and Central, now home to the Go For Broke National Education Center, was one of the locations where Japanese Americans had to line up, with only the belongings they could carry, and board buses bound for camp. The former Union Church on Judge John Aiso Street, now home to East West Players, was used to store incarcerees’ belongings during their absence.

“We have been exploring the power of place, so in a way the theater and Little Tokyo are also a character in this new play,” Ito said. “In the musical that’s coming from Broadway, how does it feel different playing on the Aratani stage? … I think that’s going to be the special feeling that maybe audiences didn’t get on Broadway.”

The ensemble recreates a camp dance in a scene from the Broadway production of “Allegiance.” (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

“We had a screening here [at the Aratani]early on in the process of the Broadway version, and I think there were two things that were very emotional for all of us that were there,” Desai recalled. “One was how this musical ties together so much of the history of Little Tokyo and the Japanese American experience here, so it was poignant to hear about Go For Broke and to know that the monument and the exhibit is right here. Or to talk about the concentration camps … go to JANM and see the mock barracks, see the soil from the different camps … to see all of that come together and coalesce, and to share that history and experience.”

He added that when high school students come to see the show, “to talk about the camp experience … and then to visit the sites, to know that rich history, is really powerful.”

Even if you go to see the Dec. 7 screening, De La Cruz encourages you to come to the Aratani. “We live in a time where we’re constantly able to sit and binge-watch things on multiple platforms, we can watch our favorite shows over and over, or we can go to YouTube and watch certain clips over and over … [Yet] being in a room with people, going on a journey together and having that moment where … everyone laughs together, cries together, or has this understanding or crystallization of an experience … Because technology is so accessible, I can literally stay in my house or in my car or in my office and experience stuff without having to be around people. So we value when people come together and the magic that happens.”

The orchestra pit, which is usually covered, “will be used in the way that it was intended,” she said.

Desai observed, “It’s surprisingly intimate for an 800-seat theater … This is probably going to be the most intimate experience with this musical that you’ll have.”

Casting Call

The show is a homecoming for some of the actors as well, Desai noted, because of “the role so many of our East West Players artists have played in this musical’s gestation, from the first reading at JANM to the San Diego production to Broadway, and now the ability to bring those artists back home and have them play these roles they played on Broadway … and have their families and communities see them in this show.”

The play addresses controversial issues in the camps, such as the government-imposed loyalty oath. Sammy Kimura decides to show his loyalty by serving in the Army, while his sister Kei sides with those who refuse to serve until their rights as U.S. citizens are restored.

Lea Salonga, George Takei, Telly Leung and Michael K. Lee in a scene from the Broadway production of “Allegiance.” (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

The headliner will be Takei, reprising his roles as Ojii-chan and present-day Sam Kimura. Joining him from Broadway will be Greg Watanabe as Mike Masa