Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Palo Alto Players
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change

The Cast
Photo by Scott Lasky
With only the clothes on their backs and one tightly clutched suitcase each, shock-faced people stand shoulder-to-shoulder while riding in a cattle car to an unknown location that turns out to be a desolate area surrounded by barbed wire, reeking of dust, and lacking in basic necessities. As they arrive, families separate as men are sent to the left and women to the right, and all–young and old–are made to strip to their underwear. The year is 1942, but the location is not Nazi-occupied Europe, and the people are not Jews. These are American citizens who have lost all property and freedom, now labeled by their government as 4C aliens and all considered as potential enemies. After all, as one soldier tells them, "A Jap is a Jap."

In the midst of this scene, which is almost too difficult to watch, one man sings in a proud, defiant voice: "We are Americans! There's nothing to discuss. Then who will speak for us?"

After a chance meeting with famed actor and gay activist George Takei and hearing of his and his family's experience at such a Japanese internment camp during World War II, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione decided to join forces with Marc Acito to write a musical that speaks loudly and boldly with both heart and humor of this shameful period in American history that affected over 12,000 Japanese American citizens. Allegiance tells one family's story, as three generations are suddenly uprooted from their comfortable Salinas, California, farm and locked up like prisoners in barren, wooden buildings in Heart Mountain, Wyoming. With a mostly Asian cast of twenty exceptionally talented actors, an orchestra of seven, and a creative team extraordinaire, Palo Alto Players is currently presenting a flawlessly executed, musically uplifting, and deeply moving Allegiance that is not-to-be-missed.

Sammy and Kei Kimura arrive with their father Tatsuo and their grandfather Kaito at the camp where bathrooms have no privacy and medicine is reserved only for the white, guarding soldiers. Tatsuo, who sings upon arrival his stern, no-discuss declaration of being an American, refuses to budge from his steadfast view that there is to be no cooperation with these captors or any sympathy for his adopted country now at war with his heritage country. With an edge in his sharply focused vocals, he sings, "I answer 'no' and 'no' to set my conscience free, my allegiance must lie first with me." ("Allegiance"). But Bryan Pangilinan's Tatsuo is also a firm anchor of resolve for his family's unity and survival, singing in a non-wavering voice, "Sturdy and sure, keep faith and endure, we will carry on."

That sense of patience to persevere while still holding one's head high is captured as the cast sings in inspirational harmony, "Gaman," a Japanese term meaning "enduring the seemingly unbearable with patient dignity," Marah Sotelo reinforces this permeating theme of Jay Kuo's moving music and lyrics as her Kei Kimura sings in beautifully assuring yet quietly rebellious vocals to a sobbing, homesick woman, "It will all be alright. There's a way through this night. Stay strong. On this long road. We bury our pain." Like her father, Kei increasingly feels both bound to her family and resistant to the conditions of the camp, the commands of her captors, or the needs of the country that has abandoned its Japanese citizens. Marah Sotelo time and again employs her lyrical, crystal-clear soprano to voice a desire to make a difference in the conditions around her and to soar in her own dreams of a better future. Throughout, she is the evening's premier star among a cast of many outstanding performers; and her story is only one of several that illustrates that resistance against all odds is possible but also can be costly.

Taking a different approach to his sister, Sammy Kimura is determined–also against all odds–to prove his patriotism and win back his family's well-being by finding a way to join the army, something his father and his sister are totally against. With his own unbending defiance and firmly stubborn opinion, Jomar Martinez's Sammy half-sings, half-speaks in a march-like anthem, "I am still American, nothing less and nothing more," while bringing to bear his fine tenor vocals to conclude, "I must be my own man."

Most in the camp abhor the radio-projected voice of the Secretary General of the Japanese American Citizens League, Mike Masaoka (Doy Charnsupharindr), who righteously urges, "Let this relocation be our contribution to the war effort." Sammy, however, finds in him an ally. Through Mike's efforts in Washington, D.C., Sammy is able finally to enlist to fight the Germans in an all-Japanese-American regiment, singing with the entire cast in "Out Time Now," a rousing, heart-pounding Act One finale, "It's our time to rise, walk through that hell. We will be heroes with stories to tell."

As he bucks the traditional custom of bowing to a father's wishes, Sammy further challenges well-established boundaries by falling in love with the camp's white nurse, Hannah Campbell. Hannah herself increasingly finds the courage to stand up to the tyranny of the camp's soldiers. Corinna Laskin sings with inner, newly gained confidence, "I am stronger than before, I am braver than before," as Hannah couples with Kei to pledge active resistance and assistance against the injustice of the camp, with the two singing in harmonious duet ("Stronger than Before") one of the evening's most resounding themes: "We are women who move mountains in the middle of a war. We are stronger than before."

Striking his own path to fight back against a forced draft while still encamped against his will is Frankie Suzuki. As a former law student from Los Angeles, Frankie walks around with an air that is clearly anti-rules, belligerent, and mutinously inclined. Christopher J. Sotelo's striking tenor takes on notes of sardonic wit as he describes the camp in "Paradise" ("Sure you shiver in this ice box, but cheer up, rent is free") while in "Resist," those same, high-register notes strike hard as he urges those around him, "Resist, for now or never; resist, we stand together to insist, before we fight, they do what's right." But his same firebrand melts when around Kei, using his tenor voice now to sing softly, sweetly a heart-melting proposal in "Nothing in Our Way."

While these key characters convey many of the intertwining stories of change versus custom, duty to family versus to country, and love permitted versus love forbidden, director Vinh G. Nguyen masterfully, sensitively, and pointedly uses members of the large cast–both individually and collectively–to fill in so many additional details of what life is like for these unfortunate, displaced citizens. Sometimes, just a silent shuffle of folks walking across the stage in the shadows speaks volumes to what is being experienced and felt by people we never really meet. At other times, the face or sudden moaning of just one unnamed character is worth much more than many lines of dialogue in order to convey a mountain of meaning.

When the cast is singing, Benjamin Belew's music direction often brings an electrical charge to the stage with voices that rise in their own sense of suffering, anger and defiance as well as finding ways still to relish the joys of family, community, and day-to-day pastimes like a friendly game of baseball (the last as heard in a rousing "Get in the Game"). Coupled with Nicole Tung's stage-filling choreography that varies from the jive, jitterbug, and swing of the wartime era to the meditative, graceful movements of traditional Japan, the singing of the cast and the instrumentals of the excellent orchestra are continuous highlights in the two-hour, fifteen minute evening (plus intermission).

Much of our understanding of the harsh conditions of the surrounding environment of Heart Mountain and of the internment itself comes via the ever-changing scenic design of Skip Epperson. Raw, plywood frames and harsh barbed-wire fences slide in and out as panels of interior walls silently also emerge from above–all quickly to setup the next of at least two scores of separate, seamlessly flowing scenes. Edward Hunter's lighting accentuates the colors of the sun on the surrounding landscape while Brandie Larkin's sound design does not let us forget its remote, harsh arena. Finally, the vast array of period costumes by Y. Sharon Peng tell particularly of the inner dignity, pride and composure these individuals bring to the harsh conditions they are forced to endure.

Perhaps even more than when it first premiered in 2015 as the first Broadway musical ever written by an Asian composer, Palo Alto Player's 2022 production of Allegiance is extremely timely and imperative to be seen. What better artistic anecdote to the continued prevalence of violence against Asian Americans both here in the Bay Area and all across the country than to see a stage full of Asian actors telling with honesty, pride and compassion a part of American history too long ignored. At a time when state legislatures across the nation are making it almost impossible to portray openly the uglier, still-harmful truths of our history, what better place than the American stage to declare:

"Still a chance, still a chance,
To learn what has passed.
Still a chance
To find our way at last."
(From the finale of Allegiance, "Still a Chance")

Allegiance runs through May 8, 2022, at Palo Alto Players, Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. For tickets and information, please visit Online viewing of a live, filmed performance will be available May 5-8, 2022.