Japanese-Americans, Cuban-Americans and The American Musical


Seldom has a flashback been put to worse use than in ALLEGIANCE, the new musical at the Longacre. The show starts in the present day when we meet septuagenarian Sam Jimura (George Takei). He tries on his old World War II military uniform and is pleased to see that he can still fit into it.

But the outfit brings back bad memories of “that time that no one speaks of anymore” – after the Pearl Harbor attacks when the U.S. government became paranoid about the loyalty of Japanese- Americans. Politicians in power were even wary of the many who’d been living in this country for decades and now identified themselves as true Americans.

These innocents were rounded up as if they were criminals, taken from their homes that they automatically lost and brought to camps in Godforsaken areas of the American West to be “interned.” That was clearly a euphemism for “incarcerated.”

Now comes to flashback to Heart Mountain, Wyoming, where young Sammy Kimura (Telly Leung) wants to prove his loyalty to America by enlisting and fighting for the Allied cause. Much of the musical has his sister Kei (Lea Salonga) and father Tatsuo (Christópheren Nomura) worried that if he goes off to war, he’ll never come back.

Well, they may worry, but we don’t – because that first scene before the flashback told us in no uncertain terms that Sam survived the war. Where’s the drama? Did this not occur to any of the three bookwriters (Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione)?

Chances are that the theatrical tail wagged the dog here, for the librettists probably wanted to open the show with Takei, who was certain to get an enthusiastic burst of entrance applause. Salonga is the show’s one Tony-winner (for MISS SAIGON), but the public at large knows Takei much more from those 52 episodes of STAR TREK that have been rebroadcast 52 million times.

Some years ago, there was a musical of THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK – honest! – and the problem that plagued it is currently dogging ALLEGIANCE. There’s something about people singing that implies contentment – and both the Franks and the Kimuras should not be portrayed in that way considering they don’t feel that way.

Oh, of course, ALLEGIANCE has a few songs in which characters sing out of anger, but for the most part, when Kuo’s pleasant music comes in, there’s a sense of serenity that’s at odds with the story. As for Kuo’s lyrics, has there ever been a score that relies more on one- syllable rhymes? They become sing-songy all too quickly.

Almost every scene begins with a Japanese-American (granted, justifiably) complaining about the liberties denied him. One scene starts with wind chimes being banned. The next denies the men the right to play around with karate. The next shows that certain medicines are kept from them. Not to make light of these atrocities, but doling them out one at a time at the top of each scene becomes a predictable device that lessens the impact of each outrage.

ALLEGIANCE does have a strong cast and era-appropriate choreography from Andrew Palermo. Stafford Arima has directed as best he can with what’s in the script. There is, however, a knockout, oh!-inducing surprise in the middle of the second act. Let’s be grateful that the authors didn’t spoil it by letting us know what had happened in advance before going into a flashback.

Meanwhile at the Marquis Theatre in ON YOUR FEET!, we have another inspired-by-real-life musical that involves far less stress – at least in the first act. True, Emilio Estefan has a hard time convincing record executives that his Cuban-American sensation and wife-to-be Gloria can ever become popular with the American public at large. But that does happen in 1985 with the success of “Conga.”

The second act brings in the tragic and crippling accident that Estefan endured six years later. There was talk that she’d never walk again, but you’d never know it from the way that Ana Villafañe plays her. In a scene where Estefan’s therapist tells her she’s not fully recovered, Villafañe is walking around lickety-split as if she never endured as much as a sprained ankle.

Too bad that Villafañe and director Jerry Mitchell didn’t see or remember Laura Linney’s performance in TIME STANDS STILL, in which she played a photojournalist who had been severely injured in the Iraq War. Donald Margulies’ play spans a year, which allowed Linney to go from barely being able to walk on crutches to steadily getting stronger to switching to a cane to finally walking under her own power. It was all very moving – and convincing.

Actually, ON YOUR FEET! could just as easily be called BONITA – Spanish, of course, for BEAUTIFUL – for up until the accident, it’s much the same as Carole King’s story of Music Industry Newbie Tries to Make It Big. BEAUTIFUL’S bookwriter did better in making us care than Alexander Dinelaris does here. But BEAUTIFUL had more of an asset with Jessie Mueller, whose self-deprecating manner and laugh made us fall in love with her. Villafañe, although possessing a voice that well replicates Estefan’s, doesn’t have the same dynamic stage presence or charisma. Frankly, much of the time she simply looks confused that she’s on stage.

Josh Segarra is far worse as Emilio, mumbling lines and often seeming as if he’s talking to himself. Someone should tell him that the word “dialogue” implies conversation with someone else. But if some writers decide to create a musical about a somnambulist, Segarra’s their man.

At least there’s a solid performance from Andrea Burns as Estefan’s scold of a mother, which contrasts nicely with Alma Cuervo’s superb doting and ever-optimistic grandmother. They’re definitely worth seeing.

But the music in jukebox musicals is always meant to be the thing, and that comes through loud (some say too loud) and clear. Sergio Trujillo’s choreography, which offers a true novelty — a tap-dance done not with taps, but with flip-flops – gets theatergoers to do a little dancing in their seats. Such assets and the love for Esteban will be enough to keep ON YOUR FEET! on its feet for quite a while. Just as Estefan wound up appealing to more than one culture, so will this musical about her.