NEW YORK >> Internment camps, racial discrimination and an atomic bomb blast are challenging topics to incorporate into a satisfying night of theater.
The heavy-handed, cliche-driven "Allegiance" which opened Sunday at the Longacre Theatre tries to take on all three — but does so unsuccessfully in a bombastic and generic Broadway musical.
The production was inspired by the childhood of "Star Trek" icon George Takei, who had family members among the 120,000 Japanese-Americans incarcerated during World War II.
Takei leads a multigenerational tale of two predictable love stories sparked behind the barbed-wire gates of a Wyoming camp. It has an ambitious agenda — touching on pride, citizenship, degradation, interracial romance, bravery and honor — and it's too much. While it's great that an Asian cast is telling a chapter in its own history, it's through an old-fashioned, stereotypical style that's out of touch with where Broadway is going.
There are long periods of unrelenting misery, with families ripped from their homes and subjected to brutality by vindictive white soldiers. Then there's a song about the joys of baseball. That gives way to scenes with dangerous, choking dust storms, a dead baby and jail beatings. Then there is a happy sock hop. It's all very jarring and not at all organic.
"Allegiance" features music and lyrics by Jay Kuo — which blends Big Band sounds with Japanese folk melodies and brassy Broadway numbers — and a book by Marc Acito, Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, which mixes Japanese words with elders speaking in broken English. The incomparable Lea Salonga and the talented Telly Leung play siblings in the show and having them back on Broadway is a treat.
But it's not always easy to watch: Each song in the musical seems to swell into a full-throated anthem, growing more swollen with every note, shooting up to the ceiling and then curling back onto themselves. The songs are simply trying too hard.
The thick lyrics also spoon-feed the story as if we couldn't already see what was happening. ("I thought I'd face the enemy/But I fell in love instead," sings a nurse who already has told us why she enlisted and we have seen fall in love.) Here's a typical overwrought line: "My blood to offer/So others might live."
One of the few bright spots is Salonga singing "Higher," a rare moment when this musical's onstage talent is beautifully served by a tender song. The rest of the show, directed by Stafford Arima, makes "Les Miserables" seem modest by comparison.
The story certainly has bitten off a lot and one of the more intriguing ideas it handles is loyalty. Can anyone, in good conscience, fight for a country that has imprisoned your family? Can you stay true to your ideals and resist an oppressive government? Who, in the end, is being more loyal?
But so much subtlety is lost in the paper-thin characters and reliance on formula. The good soldier, Sam, is super good. The war bureaucrat is detestable. The kindly nurse is big-hearted. The activist is noble. George Takei is adorable (Well, that's always true). The plot gets so contrived it eventually becomes soap opera, and that does a disservice to a searing moment in U.S. history.
There is one intriguing moment that offers a view of what this musical could have been. After the atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima, the stage goes dark. Then a trio of dancing white soldiers arrive, singing a chirpy, swing-inspired ditty.
"We thought you were the enemy/ You proved us wrong/Now just get back home where you belong/The whole messy business: whoops," they sing blithely to the detainees.
It's a cynical, darkly humorous and sarcastic song, the kind that John Kander and Fred Ebb created for their masterpieces of unease, like "Cabaret," ''The Scottsboro Boys" and "Chicago."
If anyone should have done a story about detainees and atomic bombs, it's them. This team couldn't quite nail it. With such an important subject on the line, and blessed with a talented, hard-working cast, the creators of "Allegiance" missed a ground-breaking opportunity.