Review: Allegiance

IMG_20151203_124622783“I don’t want to see this show,” I suddenly realized as the curtain went up at Allegiance. I’d had a long and tumultuous day, and seeing (what I assumed would be) a heavy-but-ultimately-uplifting story about the Japanese internment camps of World War II sounded like a dreadful idea. This is not the way you want to feel at a Broadway show, and if any other critic admitted such a thing at the beginning of a review, I’d be skeptical of what kind of review he or she would write.

So there’s my caveat. But guess what? I was right. Allegiance was just as I feared. I applaud its ambition and its terrific cast, but unfortunately, this is a musical that doesn’t contain the craft it would need to tell the story it wants to tell. At least not in a believable, moving, entertaining way.

Allegiance is loosely based on the life story of George Takei, and the scope of its story is enormous. The family drama: A (mostly) happy Japanese family is sent to a camp after Pearl Harbor, igniting latent father-son conflicts. The commentary on America: the United States cruelly confined hundreds of thousands Japanese Americans during World War II, forced them to live in squalid camps, and sent off its Japanese-American soldiers on senselessly dangerous missions. And the meet-cute romance: both daughter and son have stereotypical musical theater love stories.

You’d need a spectacularly well-crafted show to switch gears between these elements. But Allegiance is a mess. It’s one of those musicals that drives me crazy: full of corny power ballads, awkward plot contrivances, and comedic songs that aren’t funny. (I kept thinking: “This is what people who hate musicals think musicals are like! Aaargh!”)

Need a bright side? The cast is wonderful. George Takei is totally adorable and appealing in his double role: he briefly appears as the older Sammy, but spends most of his time onstage as the mischievous Grandpa character Ojii-chan. Lea Salonga is — as ever — in fabulous voice as Kei, though I’m not sure her character gives her much to work with. Finally, Telly Leung is very winning and charismatic as Kei’s brother Sammy, who later becomes a heroic soldier.

True confession time: I wrote this post a month ago, immediately after seeing Allegiance, but felt guilty about its negativity and kept postponing publishing it. I kept thinking maybe I should soften my criticism, and even now I’m still not sure I should hit publish. But on the other hand, I’m overdue for a post. And anyway I haven’t changed my mind. You want to be a Les Miz, you’ve got to execute like Les Miz does. Allegiance doesn’t.

My Grade: C-
Ticket price: $51.00
Worth it: No
Running Time: 2:20
Standing Ovation Watch: Oh, probably. But to be honest I don’t recall for certain. I need to start writing this stuff down.

Review: You Can’t Take it With You

2014-09-30 19.01.43“I feel like this show isn’t your thing.” It was intermission at You Can’t Take it With You and I was informing my friends Ann and Jodi of their opinions on Broadway’s newest revival. They assured me that they were in fact enjoying themselves plenty, thank you very much. (Maybe I should stick to forming my own opinions?) The three of us had decided to see You Can’t Take it With You for a few major reasons: first, it was Jodi’s birthday (happy birthday Jodi!) and we wanted to celebrate. Second, our friend and fellow NYC RedbirdJoe was in the cast. And third, who doesn’t want to see a first-class revival of a first-class comedy?

I’d actually never seen You Can’t Take it With You, though I’d read it ages ago and have always considered it my favorite of the Kaufman and Hart plays. It’s about the Sycamores, a family that prides itself on being noncomformist and creative. Put more simply: they are totally lovable weirdos. When Alice (Rose Byrne) brings her strait-laced boyfriend (and his stuck-up parents) over, lots of zany high jinks ensue.

Long story short: it’s a strong production. I mean, the cast has oodles of talent. James Earl Jones seems to be enjoying himself quite a bit as patriarch Martin. Annaleigh Ashford is great as lousy ballerina Essie. (Boy can she execute physical comedy perfectly, or what?) And I hate to pick favorites, but I’ll be unfair and pick Kristine Nielsen as the most hilarious of the bunch. She’s loopy and ridiculous as the easily distracted mother/playwright/artist/pot-stirrer Penny.

So why would I suspect Ann and Jodi wouldn’t like it? Well, I had a few reservations myself. It does feel creaky. The first act is almost entirely a set-up for the second act — which is by far the best part of the show — while the third act mostly wraps things up. Shows are structured so differently now. Even the way Alice and her boyfriend speak to each other would never fly onstage today:

Tony: Thank God I’m vice-president. I can dictate to you all day. “Dear Miss Sycamore: I love you, I love you, I love you.”
Alice: Oh, darling! You’re such a fool.

And then there’s the ending, which is definitely a little more sentimental than it needs to be. Now I’m generally a sucker for anything old-fashioned, but the earnest tone did jar me a bit. There’s a speech about prizing life over money, because you can’t take it with you, after all. I’m probably just used to the way things are written today. A speech like that in a modern play, for example, would probably be dripping in irony.

In any case, the escapist feel is a huge part of the charm of this show. It feels like a breath of fresh air; I can just imagine how transported theatergoers felt to come upon such a well-crafted screwball comedy during the long Great Depression. Having seen (and liked!) Act One earlier this year — which tells the story of Kaufman and Hart’s first meeting and collaboration — I felt particularly primed to enjoy You Can’t Take it With You. (It’s like reading In Cold Blood after seeing Capote.)

And finally, unlike practically every other old-fashioned play, this one doesn’t overstay its welcome**.  The 7pm show ended at 9:20, and we had plenty of time to go backstage and congratulate Joe on a great show (and job well done in his small role). I’m even tempted to go back in a few weeks, when (in an art-imitates-life moment) Joe’s going to go on as Annaleigh’s husband.

My Grade: B+
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes with 2 (!) intermissions
Ticket price: Ann and Jodi’s treat (thank you!)
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: 50/50

* — There are, surprisingly enough, quite a few theater/Broadway types in the New York City Cardinals fans group.

** — HOW on earth did theatergoers in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s tolerate so many three hour shows?