Two new Broadway musicals this week, but at today’s budget-blasting ticket prices, only one is worth the money. A noisy Las Vegas floor show called On Your Feet!, which weakly claims to be “the story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan,” is a perfect example of what happened to the dying art of the once-coveted Broadway musical, and why, in the New York theater world, there is so little regard for originality, creativity and artistry. Pop-rock jukebox musicals are a dime a dozen, and On Your Feet! isn’t even a very good one. On the other hand, the rousing new musical Allegiance has an original book, original score and fresh, original ideas—qualities so unusual in a market overcrowded with stale revivals that attention must be paid. See it and cheer.
While On Your Feet! has no story, no plot, no form and no content other than a Cuban beat that is admittedly infectious, Allegiance is a disgraceful footnote to American history about a sore subject nobody wants to admit—the way the U.S. government treated loyal and peaceful Japanese-American civilians after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. Based on the actual experiences he and his family endured when they were locked up in U.S. internment camps during World War II, political activist and actor George Takei, best known as Mr. Sulu on Star Trek, is the inspiration for this deeply touching saga.
He plays the wise patriarch of an honest, hardworking clan of immigrant farmers in the John Steinbeck region of Northern California whose homes were confiscated by a decree from President Franklin Roosevelt that rounded up 120,000 innocent Japanese citizens, robbed them of their possessions, clothes, businesses, and money, and evacuated them to forced labor prisons in Arkansas, Wyoming, and California where they were subjected to harsh punishments that have left a blight on American human relations to this day.
The Kimura family has a spirited son named Sammy, beautifully played and powerfully sung by handsome, awesomely talented Telly Leung, who resents being treated like a criminal by gung ho American soldiers, stripped of his clothes and dignity, denied medicine, blankets, and healthy food, and forced to live with rats and fleas. The prisoners tried to assimilate, even formed an all-American baseball team. But their babies died in the severe cold and heat for no reason other than racism. “America is also at war with Italy, but they didn’t lock up Joe DiMaggio,” says Sammy in one of the show’s more poignant outbursts. It’s a good point.
This is a musical? You bet, and a darned passionate one, too. The carefully researched book by Marc Acito, Lorenzo Thione and Jay Kuo, who also supplied the soaring music and intelligent lyrics, collates years of events into a gripping trajectory, while the stirring score perfectly illustrates the action, seamlessly staged by director Stafford Arima. By 1944, to prove their loyalty and ease tensions for their struggling families, Sammy leads a group of Japanese-American boys who join the Army and form their own fighting unit. (Others were unfairly drafted, even while their families were still jailed.) Dissent reigns, but Sammy fights to defend the honor of all Japanese-Americans back home while others, including his sister Kei’s boyfriend Frankie Suzuki (an equally fine Michael K. Lee), burn draft cards and are labeled draft dodgers, risking a conviction for treason. Lea Salonga, with a voice clear and as sparkling as Baccarat crystal, is the older sister who bridges the gap, maintains peace and stands up for a positive future.
But when Sammy returns from a postwar veterans hospital with a Purple Heart to find his fiancée Hannah (Katie Rose Clarke)—the blonde American nurse who broke the rules to supply his family with enough medicine to keep them alive during their incarceration in the camp—accidentally murdered by one of the G.I. security guards, while Frankie, now married to Kei and a member of the family, stood by and watched, he disowns them all. When the war was over, the internees were given a bus ticket and $25 each, but between brother and sister, a new war is just beginning that nobody will ever win. The coda, which takes place in San Francisco after 50 years of estrangement, brought tears to my eyes. The audience is overwhelmed. The screams are voluminous. The songs carry you aloft on wings of triumph, and the greatest cast of under-used Asian talents since Flower Drum Song and Pacific Overtures brings a cheering crowd to its feet every night with a standing ovation that is well deserved.
The same thing happens at the end of On Your Feet!, but after hours of merely polite applause it seems more obligatory than spontaneous. This fiesta of Latin music has an empty hole in the center where the story should be. Without conflict or drama, Gloria Estefan’s rise from Cuban immigrant to Miami songwriter is duller. The endless conga beat has a contagious passion, but there’s a simple-mindedness to the lyrics of her songs (“You always lose when you win/If those are the rules of the game, deal me in…And though it’s been hard on my ride/It’s been one hell of a ride.”) A lot of wannabe Carmen Mirandas shake their stiletto heels silly to music with a soul the story never provides, and some of the numbers they scream in a wail of cacophony are worth hearing, but there’s a sameness about them that is boring. Anyway, it’s much cheaper to download them.
The book by Alexander Dinelaris is an empty vessel that reduces Ms. Estefan’s life to little more than an outline. Ana Villafane’s Gloria is a pretty girl who can sing up a storm. Josh Segarra’s Emilio is a pretty, bombastic taskmaster whose enunciation is only sporadically coherent. The show’s best performance is by Alma Cuervo as Gloria’s mother, who blocks her daughter’s musical ambitions because she once gave up her own dream—of being a Spanish Shirley Temple. Some semblance of a story surfaces at last when Gloria survives a near-fatal traffic accident on her tour and undergoes an arduous spinal surgery. But this comes in the final half-hour of a two-and-a-half-hour show—too late to pump much adrenalin into a comeback in sequins at the American Music Awards, singing, “Everybody gather round now/Let your body feel the heat…Don’t worry if you can’t dance/Let the music move your feet.” The rhythm in Sergio Trujillo’s choreography, directed by Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots), is catchy, but my feet remained firmly on the ground.
As tacky pop-rock jukebox musicals go, the eardrum-assaulting On Your Feet! can’t go fast enough to suit me.