There is a ripple of applause as Allegiance opens with George Takei walking onstage. The West End is full of stars, and on any given night you can find Hollywood royalty treading the boards. But this is a little different. This is a bona fide legend. At 85 years old, Takei is making his West End debut to tell a story loosely inspired by his life – not by his decades of famously playing Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek, but by his childhood, when he and his family, as Japanese Americans, were interned during World War II.
Takei plays two roles. First, he is the older Sammy, a US Army veteran, in a framing device that places us in the present before going back in time to his memories. There, younger Sammy is played by Telly Leung, and Takei plays Ojii-Chan (‘grandfather’). Leung is superb. Far from being cast for a resemblance to a younger Takei, his talent is obvious and he exudes confidence and charisma. His relationship with sister Kei (Aynrad Ferrer) drives the heart of the play. Despite the setting of a concentration camp, the story is about love and loss, romance found within the camp and the love and conflict in a family. While the title and setting suggest allegiance to country or to flag, Allegiance is just as interested in the complex relationships between family and the breakdown and devisive conflict.
The story is at times corny, clichéd and predictable. The character of the white nurse playing saviour is eye-rolling (Megan Gardiner is however impressive and funny!) but a lot is tackled with at least some nuance. The play lays out reasons for the differing opinions among the younger Japanese internees who either decide to join the US Army and ‘prove’ their loyalty, or refuse to collaborate while their parents and family are locked up for nothing less than racism. Sammy is somewhat oversimplified, boiled down to a gung-ho ‘we must join the army’ figure, but his future brother-in-law Frankie (Patrick Munday) has more depth with his reasoning to refuse the draft. Allegiance is careful to let us understand both positions and the divide between them. It doesn’t need to add anything more to an announcement that as the camps close, the internees are allowed home with only a bus ticket and $25.
The songs are, unfortunately, a bit forgettable but the music is lively and dramatic, filling the small Charing Cross Theatre nicely. To highlight just two standout performances; Ferrer is marvellous, showing the impact of the family divide and shining every time she sings. Then, towards the end of the first act, Frankie comes to the forefront and Munday shows an exceptional singing voice. The songs themselves, however, fade away, although clear efforts to incorporate Japanese music and themes are very welcome. Occasional moments stick in the memory with music and visuals rather than song, notably the depiction of the bombing of Hiroshima.
There is no question that Allegiance benefits from its full title; George Takei’s Allegiance and from his presence. Takei appears every bit as bright, friendly and likeable as his social media presence and campaigning suggests, and his investment in wanting to tell this story resonates. While Allegiance might not be a smash hit or a note-perfect piece of musical theatre, it more than succeeds in allowing Takei and company to raise awareness of his story and those horrible times, warning us again of the dangers of seeing people by the colour of their skin or their ethnicity. Takei considers this his legacy project; he has spent decades telling his tale. Having such a legend from stage and screen presenting this as a profoundly personal story is enormously powerful and moving.
Music & Lyrics by: Jay Kuo
Book by: Marc Acito, Jay Kuo & Lorenzo Thione
Directed and Choreography by: Tara Overfield Wilkinson
Musical Supervision and Orchestration by: Andrew Hilton and Charlie Ingles
Set and Costume Design by: Mayou Trikerioti
Lighting Design by: Nic Farman
Sound Design by: Chris Whybrow
George Takei’s Allegiance plays at Charing Cross Theatre until 8 April 2023. Further information and bookings can be found here.