Review by Daz Gale
The West End has been graced by performances from some absolute legends over the years but they don’t come much more legendary than George Takei, who is belatedly making his London stage debut at age 85 with his musical George Takei's Allegiance. Inspired by Takei’s story in a US concentration camp at the age of 5, the show had previously enjoyed a run on Broadway in 2015 with a streamed version made available to watch during the first lockdown in 2020.
Allegiance has a special significance for me as the streamed version was one of the first shows I ever reviewed for the website back in 2020 (yes, I got better at writing reviews... slightly). I fell in love with the story and longed for a London transfer, even saying "I could see this show working in a small theatre in the West end if they ever wanted to bring it here". When I got my wish, it easily became one of my most anticipated shows of the year. The question is if it could live up to the high expectation I had set for it myself.
Allegiance tells the story of the Kimura family following the aftermath of the attack on pearl Harbor where they were part of 120,000 Japanese Americans forced into internment camps. Through the story we follow fractures within the family following their different beliefs in whether they should be enlisting for America as well as surprising relationships occurring, brief moments of joy even in the darkest of times and no shortage of heartache and tragedy.
Written by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, Allegiance can make for an intense couple of hours of theatre with its heavy themes, but it is one that is consistently gripping and surprisingly uplifting, even in the face of mistreatment and tragedy. Exceptionally well written, it portrays a beautiful mix of emotions and somehow manages to keep a positive outlook, similar in vein to that of Come From Away where something good can come from something unimaginably awful.
Tara Overfield Wilkinsons direction makes fantastic use of the sometimes challenging space at Charing Cross Theatre, utilising the centre space and playing to both sides of the audience in a way that feels intimate and never at all restricted. Tara is also responsible for the sensational choreography, resulting in some truly stunning sequences and a sensitive and understated use of movement. Mayou Trikerioti’s set design is atmospheric, transforming the stage into the camp but not relying on big set pieces, instead letting the emotions and actors performance speak for themselves.
The greatest strength in Allegiance is its gorgeous songs. With music and lyrics from Jay Kuo, it boasts a consistently strong collection of songs that feel instantly familiar and stay with you long after leaving the theatre. From the beginnings of ‘Wishes On The Wind’ and the immediately resonating ‘Gaman’ to upbeat numbers ‘I Oughta Go’ and ‘Get In The Game’, this is a show where the standard is gloriously strong. Surprising moments including the sarcastic ‘Paradise’ and unexpected ‘442 Victory Swing’ provide an interesting and versatile mix.
George Takei reprises the role he created in the show on Broadway, playing two very different characters Sam Kimura and Ojji-Chan. Bookending the musical as the more brash Sam, George gets to show immense character growth in just two scenes. He spends more time on stage as Ojji-Chan, the sweet natured grandpa who radiates joy whenever he can be seen. It’s no secret what an immensely talented performer George Takei is and watching him showcase his versatility as an actor in such an intimate space feels like such a special treat. Even though he may have comparatively less to do than other performers, the knowledge this show came from George himself and is based on his true experience makes the whole affair feel all the more poignant.
Also reprising his role from Broadway is Telly Leung, making his London stage debut as Sammy Kimura. A true star in every sense of the word, Telly is bursting with charisma from the moment he first appears. Through his performance as Sammy, he displays a beautifully multifaceted character in a true masterclass when it comes to characterisation. Impossible not to fall in love with, Telly was a wonder to behold throughout, none more so than when he gets to show off his incredible singing voice, culminating in his big rousing solo number ‘What Makes A Man’ – among the best I have seen on stage in a long time.
Another undoubted standout is Aynrand Fererr as Kei Kimura, in a blissful performance full of heart and vulnerability. Aynrand was a revelation to watch, effortlessly managing to pierce my very soul with her remarkable vocals on ‘Higher’. The glue that could hold her fighting family together, Aynrand was similarly an integral piece to this story and one that was played to its full potential, thanks to her note-perfect performance.
Other highlights among the equally impressive cast are Masashi Fujmoto as Tatsuo Kimra, Patrick Mundy who delighted as Frankie and Iverson Yabut in the unenviable task of portraying the real life Mike Masaoka. Megan Gardiner thrilled with a sensitive and loving portrayal of Hannah Campbell, getting a few moments to shine on stage, though perhaps her character isn’t explored as much as could have been, which meant certain aspects of her story could have used slightly more depth.
The story of Allegiance remains hard-hitting more than 75 years after the events took place. The way this musical has been written makes it feel incredibly raw. However, what is especially beautiful is how it manages to remain joyous and uplifting for the vast majority of the show. While there are some sadder moments to be found here, ultimately this is a celebration of life and the human spirit. Incredibly emotional to watch, particularly as the events in act two ramp up, it is a testament to how expertly Allegiance is written that I was able to feel so deeply as the story came to its close.
Ultimately, Allegiance has far more heart than your average show, and that is what makes it so fantastic. Embodying what it is that makes theatre so special, it can make you weep and then beam from ear to ear a split second later. With brilliant writing, gorgeous songs and a phenomenal cast, Allegiance was better than I could have possibly hoped for, reminding me once again what theatre can achieve at its very best. We have waited a while to see George Takei and this show in London but our perseverance has paid off and this was more than worth the wait. Beautifully life-affirming, Allegiance sets the bar for 2023 theatre ridiculously high.
Allegiance plays at Charing Cross Theatre until 8th April 2023. Tickets from www.AllegianceMusical.com
Photos by Tristram Kenton & Danny Kaan