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  • AmericanTheaterWeb Original News & Reviews

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'Allegiance' - Sad Slice of American History


Lea Salonga and George Takei in Allegiance
(©Matthew Murphy)

Based purely on the emotional resonance of its subject matter, the new musical Allegiance, which opened last night at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre, demands attention. It focuses on a shameful period of American history: the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Beyond the musical’s subject matter, the production also features a top-notch cast, including Tony winner Lea Salonga; Telly Leung, seen in Broadway’s Godspell and Rent, in his first starring role; and Star Trek’s George Takei, who is making his Broadway debut and whose presence adds a painful verity to the show. This actor, as a child, along with his family was placed in one of the internment camps.

Given all of this, it feels churlish to carp about the shortcomings of Allegiance, and at the same time, it also feels painfully necessary. Bringing this slice of American history to the stage requires more than a reliance on audiences’ willingness to emotionally give themselves over to the ugliness of real-life events.

Told as a flashback after elderly Sam Kimura (Takei) learns that the sister from whom he has been estranged for 50 years has died, Allegiance charts how he, as a young man, and his family were forced to sell their prosperous farm at ten cents on the dollar and placed in the government camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming after America’s entry into World War II.

Conditions at the camp are beyond harsh, and the family and the others who are kept there struggle to survive. At the same time, lives do go on. Romance blossoms between the younger incarnation of Sam (Leung) and Hannah (Katie Rose Clarke), a Caucasian nurse. There are also amorous sparks between his sister Kei (Salonga) and Frankie (Michael K. Lee), a man who’s unafraid to voice his opposition to American policies.

This becomes particularly true after the head of the Japanese American Citizens' League (JACL), Mike Masaoka (Greg Watanabe), convinces government officials that a army unit of Japanese-American should be established. Before men are considered for duty, however, the powers-that-be feel they need to determine that potential soldiers are loyal to the U.S. This desire results in a questionnaire given to all of the internees that amounts to an allegiance statement.

It’s this document that leads to Sammy and Kei’s rift. He signs, enlists, and eventually becomes a hero in battle, finally proving his merit to his father. This elder man refuses to sign and is imprisoned. Frankie leads further protests and denounces the men who agreed to sign.

The Allegiance book, by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo (who has also written music and lyrics), and Lorenzo Thione, thus, tells a standard issue family drama, and as the authors continue to raise the stakes for the central characters, the show begins to resemble the television mini-series treatments of Herman Wouk’s novels about the war from the days when serial drama was king on TV during prime time. It’s not a patently bad thing, but it does ultimately diminish theatergoers’ ability to fully appreciate the atrocity of the internment camp experience endured by over 100,000 people.

Director Stafford Arima’s production manages to put the Kimura drama in an appropriately grim context. Donyale Werle’s scenic design, which through the uses of a trio of sliding wood slat panels and skeletal wooden wall frames, brings the living conditions at Heart Mountain strikingly to life while also evoking a certain Asian aesthetic. Darrel Maloney’s projection design augments her work beautifully, particularly as one sees the guard towers that loom over the camp.

Kuo’s score, a haphazard combination of period pastiche and anthemic bombast reminiscent of Boublil and Schönberg, periodically accomplishes a similar feat. There are some beautiful traces of Asian-sounding melodies fused into a Broadway vernacular, particularly in “Gaman” (“carry on”). Similarly, “Ishi Kara Ishi” (“stone by stone”) sounds as if it might be an actual Japanese folk song.

Elsewhere, though, songs like “This Is Not Over,” “With You,” and “Stronger Than Before,” match the generic tone of the musical’s family drama, and for the first act finale, Kuo echoes the rousing “One Day More” from Les Misérables with “Our Time Now,” bringing all of the conflicting tales into one burst of musicality.

The performers, all of whom look as if they have stepped out of a 70 year time warp thanks to Alejo Vietti’s splendid period costume design, deliver the material with passion---and occasionally stirring--conviction. It’s little surprise that Salonga combines feistiness and sweetness as Kei. She brought such duality to her work in Miss Saigon over 25 years ago, but with time, a certain gravity has crept into her work, and it beautifully serves her performance as Kei, as does her still-glorious soprano.

Leung proves thoroughly winning as Sammy and his powerful voice serves the material well. He and Clarke share a lovely chemistry, and she navigates Hannah’s journey with delicacy. It’s wonderful to watch the character’s chilly and starched exterior fade as the musical progresses.

It’s unfortunate that Christopher Nomura, who possesses a deep mellifluous voice and plays Sammy and Kei’s father, and Takei, who has a marvelously playful stage presence and plays their grandfather, are saddled with portraying characters who are simply two-dimensional familial elders. The writing for JACL leader Masaoko proves more nuanced, and Watanabe brings the well-meaning character to sympathetically to life.

Perhaps most impressive is Lee’s turn as the firebrand Frankie. There’s a raw, edgy intensity to the actor’s work that serves the character perfectly, and when Frankie leads the company in “Paradise,” a number that satirizes conditions at the camp and the allegiance pledge, he electrifies, blending anger and humor to perfection.

There are other such moments in the show; Arima’s and choreographer Andrew Palermo’s combined work for the sequences that unfold in Italy as Sammy fights are particularly haunting. And, ultimately, it’s such individual sequences and the sad pull of the legacy of the internment camps that engage theatergoers emotionally. It’s just difficult to not wish that the entirety of Allegiance accomplished a similar feat.

---- Andy Propst


Allegiance plays at the Longacre Theatre (220 West 48th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.allegiancemusical.com.

'Therese Raquin' - Painterly Precision on Stage


Gabriel Ebert, Matt Ryan and Keira Knightley in Therese Racquin
(©Joan Marcus)

The painterly precision of Evan Cabnet’s staging of Therese Raquin astonishes. Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design, Jane Greenwood’s costume designs, and Keith Parham’s lighting design conspire to make moments in the show look as if a painting from the Musée d’Orsay has sprung to life on the stage of Studio 54. Similarly, British stage and screen star Keira Knightley, in her Broadway debut, turns in a performance of remarkable exactness in the title role.

Unfortunately, these assets do not always serve the play, Helen Edmundson’s fleet adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel, to the best results. For while the piece tells the theoretically chilling story of a woman, who trapped in an unhappy marriage turns to an adulterous relationship and ultimately becomes complicit in murder, it never becomes much more than a relatively clinical and intellectual experience.

That’s not to say that the production is ever anything less than interesting. Knightley’s performance, for instance, might be one of the most intense that audiences will see on Broadway this season. Often without speaking a word, she brings Therese’s emotional world into clear focus. Each dagger-filled stare that she gives or subtle shift in posture that she makes rivet can speak volumes, and audiences sense the depth of her resentment of her hasty marriage to Camille, a sickly vain cousin, as well as her lust-at-first-sight for Laurent, a handsome co-worker of her husband’s.

Similarly, Judith Light, playing Camille’s too-doting and too-trusting mother, gives a performance that seems to be the epitome of cheery goodness, and Gabriel Ebert, as her son, delivers a pitch-perfect performance of a man who’s been so coddled that he remains an infant. In fact, Ebert makes Camille so remarkably needy and self-satisfied that he becomes the character about whom audiences feel most passionate. This Camille is genuinely loathsome.

It’s hard not to wish that Matt Ryan’s work as Laurent was as enticing. The performer certainly has an affable air from the moment he steps on stage, and a genuine spark between him and Knightley exists. But it ultimately does not prove to be enough to lure audiences to the couple’s side, which becomes particularly unfortunate during the second act when they find themselves haunted by their deeds in the close confines of a Paris apartment. (In addition the dappled earth tone looks for the show’s outdoor sequences, which include an on stage lake, Boritt provides a remarkably claustrophobic wood-paneled interior.)

It’s during these latter sequences that the theatergoers feel the emotional reserve of the show most keenly. Instead of inspiring empathetic fright or even a schadenfreude-infused sense of moral superiority, they evoke only a sense of melodramatic mirth. It’s the most unlikely of responses to this sad and potentially pungent story.

---- Andy Propst


Therese Raquin plays at at Studio 54 (254 West 54th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.roundabouttheatre.org.

'Travels With My Aunt' - 'Auntie Mame' Meets 'The Third Man'


Daniel Jenkins and Thomas Jay Ryan in Travels With My Aunt
(©Carol Rosegg)

Auntie Mame meets The Third Man in Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt as Henry, a straight-laced retiree finds himself swept through Europe and South America by Augusta, his mother’s free-spirited sister, whom he only meets after his mother’s death.

Giles Havergal’s stage adaptation of the book proved to be a hit in the U.K. in the late 1980s and then in New York in the mid-1990s, and now it has returned to the stage in a warmly charming production courtesy of the Keen Company.

Havergal’s conceit for the piece is that all of Greene’s characters are played by a quartet of actors who assume both male and female roles. Not only do they alternate between playing Henry and Augusta, but also all of the characters whom the two meet during their journeys. It’s a recipe for some high-spirited acting, and under Jonathan Silverman’s fine direction, this new production boasts four performances to savor.

Principal among them is Thomas Jay Ryan, who, of the four, is primarily responsible for playing Augusta, and he takes on the role with delicacy and aplomb. It’s fascinating to watch how he seemingly transforms into the elderly woman without a single costume change (costume designer Jennifer Paar dresses all four men in black suits). Ryan, by slightly raising the pitch of his voice and shifting his posture slightly, makes theatergoers believe that 70 or 80 year old woman has walked on stage.

Ryan is equally adept at bringing Henry to life, and as the character comes to realize that he might have misspent much of his life sequestered alone and in business, a facade of formality and stiffness slowly gives way to one of cheerful ease.

Ryan’s cast mates include Dan Jenkins, Jay Russell, and Rory Kulz, who all impeccably play a host of roles beyond brief stints as Henry and Augusta. Jenkins is most memorable for his amusing and slightly formidable turn as Wordsworth, Augusta’s Caribbean-born butler and lover. Russell stands out as a hip, twentysomething American woman whom Henry meets aboard the Orient Express, and later as an American operative whom Henry encounters in South America.

Henry’s transcontinental adventures unfold in an abstract gray environment from scenic designer Stephen C. Kemp, which ultimately serves to catalog his destinations in the same way that old steamer trunks did when they were plastered with colorful stickers, and Josh Bradford’s lighting design ably indicates location to help guide audiences as Henry hops from one place to the next in this lark of an adventure.

---- Andy Propst

Travels With My Aunt plays at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: keencompany.org.

'The Humans' - Giving Thanks During Troubling Times


Sarah Steele, Arian Moayed, Jayne Houdyshell, and Lauren Klein in The Humans
(©Joan Marcus)

The Blake family may be gathering to celebrate Thanksgiving in Stephen Karam’s richly conceived new play The Humans, which opened last night at Roundabout Theatre’s Laura Pels Theatre, but as audiences quickly discover there are myriad pressures that are diminishing the each member of the clan’s gratitude as the holiday season begins.

Strains can be felt from the moment the play begins as Brigid welcomes her parents, Erik and Deirdre, her sister Aimee, and her wheelchair-bound grandmother, “Momo,” to her new apartment in Chinatown. Yes, Brigid, along with boyfriend Richard, have scored a “duplex,” a first floor apartment along with basement (ably rendered by scenic designer David Zinn), but it comes at a price. There’s an upstairs neighbor who’s raucously noisy (excellent sound design by Fitz Patton).

Beyond that, there’s been a problem with the moving van, so the couple has virtually no furniture, although there is one rather sumptuous chair---a gift from Richard’s parents---in the upstairs space. A barb from Deidre about it makes it clear that she’s not too happy about Brigid’s living arrangement.

As the play progresses, what begins painfully clear is that it’s not just the space or Momo’s dementia-fueled outbursts that are creating the tension in the family. Erik and Deidre are facing money issues. Aimee’s about to be dismissed from her law firm, not because of any wrongdoing, but because health issues caused her to miss more work than the company would have liked.

When these issues are combined with the fact that Richard comes from a more affluent background and the fact that he’s significantly older than Brigid, who also lets it slip that her work as a musician has stalled, the gathering becomes not so much a celebration as a kind of awkward wake for everyone involved. There are attempts at joviality and maintaining a “business as usual” sort of demeanor, but it’s difficult to not wince at how forced it all is while also savoring how deftly Karam has captured the litany of fears that are coursing under the lives of many middle class Americans today.

Directed with a sure hand by Joe Mantello, the company balances the play’s mixture of comedy and drama with finesse, particularly the indispensible Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell as Brigid’s parents. He imbues Erik with both genuine warmth and affection for wife and children and with a decided distance and detachment. There are times it seems as if Erik, sleep-deprived from bad dreams, has simply gone somewhere else, emotionally and mentally.

Houdyshell, who has the ability to score a laugh with her dry and unaffected delivery of the most casual of comments, delights as Deirdre becomes increasingly tipsy. At the same time, Houdyshell evinces the sense of deep disappointment and bitterness that runs just under the woman’s facade of maternal devotion and Catholic piety (one of Deirdre’s housewarming gifts for Brigid is a Virgin Mary statuette).

As Aimee, Cassie Beck delivers a fine performance as a tough attorney, who’s suddenly having to cope with a number of personal crises, and Sarah Steele brings a lovely sense of perpetual girlishness to her portrayal of Brigid. This is a woman who may be out on her own and struggling to make it as an artist, but she’s also a child who still very much wants mom and dad (no matter how much she might deny it).

As the one outsider to the whole Blake clan, Arian Moayed offers up a carefully etched portrait of a man who has come from a place of privilege. Richard could very well be played as a man whose experiences of relative ease make him obnoxious or overbearing. Moayed, however, avoids this pitfall, making Richard’s sense of sense of relative comfort a casual fact. On many levels, his ability to offhandedly talk about a trust he will get and his return to school in his thirties, after a dealing with a bout of depression, all the more rankling to the elder members of the Blake family.

The group does get through their Thanksgiving meal and, unsurprisingly, a more than a few secrets come out as the gathering progresses. If not all of them are surprises, it doesn’t matter or diminish the impact of The Humans, which provides an articulate and heartrending picture of a family weathering difficult times.

---- Andy Propst


The Humans plays at Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (111West 46th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: roundabouttheatre.org.

'Homecoming King' - Comic Tales From Hasan Minhaj


Hasan Minhaj in Homecoming King
(©Andrew Kist)

The impish gleam that frequently crosses Hasan Minhaj’s face as he performs his solo show Homecoming King, which opened last night at the Cherry Lane Theatre, beguiles. Audiences most often see it when he knows he’s being terribly un-PC, and it’s at these moments that the piece scores its biggest laughs as the performer has given theatergoers the permission to join him in the joke.

Elsewhere, Homecoming King, directed by Greg Walloch, sparks some chuckles and elicits a few smiles as Minhaj works through his autobiographical tale. Audiences learn of his experiences as a child growing up in California, the sacrifices that his parents made in raising him, and his experiences in early adulthood as he began his career as a standup comedian, which eventually leads to a gig as correspondent for The Daily Show.

Many of the pieces of the Minhaj’s narrative are familiar. For instance, his Indian-born parents are none too thrilled about his career choice, but there’s enough that’s unexpected in this first-generation Indian-American’s history to ensure that theatergoers never feel as if they are experiencing theatrical déjà vu. The story about his prom, which paves the way for the show’s title, unfolds with a number of terrific twists and turns.

The difficulty with the show, ultimately, is not one of content, but rather structure. Minhaj too frequently appears to be meandering through his memories rather than taking theatergoers on a focused journey through them.

His tales are ably supported by Gil Sperling’s video design, which mirrors the kind of playful quality that the best moments in Minhaj’s performance have.

---- Andy Propst


Homecoming King plays at the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street). For more information and tickets, visit: homecomingkingshow.com.