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'Allegiance' review: George Takei on WWII Japanese-American camps

From left: Michael K. Lee, George Takei and

From left: Michael K. Lee, George Takei and Lea Salonga appear in a scene from "Allegiance." Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

Early in "Allegiance," there is a procession of refugees carrying their few belongings -- an all-too-familiar global image of confusion, helplessness and dislocation. What makes this moment so startling, so particularly moving, is that these exiles are in their own country. And that country is America.

"Allegiance" is the mission of George Takei, based on his childhood internment with his family in the cruel Japanese-American detention camps during World War II. The ambitious musical, in which Takei forcefully portrays two very different old men within a generous ensemble, carries its heavy baggage with a surprising lightness of spirit.

The show isn't bombastic or preachy, though some may find the well-structured book -- written by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione -- too earnest. Kuo's serviceable score is loaded with anthems, simple melodic lines and some obvious rhymes, with a few lighthearted '40s boogie-woogy numbers to signify Americana. Although we hear enticing Japanese flute and percussion between scenes, this more "Le Miz"-lite pop opera than a fusion of musical cultures.

But I was engrossed throughout. The show has fully developed characters, a strong cast and a new story to tell in an old-fashioned way. Takei, aka Mr. Sulu on "Star Trek," boldly goes where no man has gone before, at least in popular musical-theater, to tell personal stories from a shameful, marginalized time in our history.

The characters' allegiance cuts in multiple ways. After the military forced what's euphemistically called "the evacuees" to sign a catch-22 loyalty oath, honorable people are pulled in opposite directions. Sammy (played with breakout power by Telly Leung) joins the army to prove that his people are real Americans, but not before falling for the military nurse (Katie Rose Clarke). Frankie (the sympathetic Michael K. Lee) is outraged by the pledge and organizes a camp revolt. In the middle is Kei (Lea Salonga in a sturdy, welcome Broadway return), Sammy's protective sister and Frankie's love. Sammy's father (Christopheren Nomura with a voice as dark as his character's pain) goes to prison.

The people, representing just a few of the 120,000 interned Japanese-Americans, are pulled from their California businesses and studies to an isolated, dehumanizing Wyoming mountain camp -- modestly and smartly designed by Donyale Werle with sliding wooden frames that suggest Japanese screens without their beautiful insides.

Then there is Takei, with his deep, strong, growling voice, convincing both as the bitter, grown-up Sammy and as the young Sammy's grandfather -- a gentle, clever, old-country immigrant who teaches the next generation the word "gaman." It means "endurance with dignity." This may not make it as a kill-for-a-ticket boffo-Broadway slogan, but, for me, that simple concept sells the show.

WHAT "Allegiance"

WHERE Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St.

INFO $45-$149; 212-239-6200; allegiancemusical.com

BOTTOM LINE Not perfect, but important history, lovingly told

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