Charing Cross Theatre, London – until 8 April 2023
An old man steps onstage alone: upright, soldierly in khaki as a former US war hero who is, he says resignedly, “brought out every year on the Pearl Harbour anniversary”. George Takei, 85 years old, is the most beguiling of figures these days (even if you aren’t a Trekkie who misses Mr Sulu at the dashboard or a follower of his liberal campaigns and frank remarks how nobody liked William Shatner). And this, fresh off Broadway, is a serious, personal Takei telling the story of a great injustice done to fellow countrymen of his race.
At five years old, after a sunny and prosperous Californian infancy, he found himself sleeping on horse-scented straw alongside his bewildered family at a racecourse stable in Arkansas, hastily adapted into a rough camp. Japanese-Americans lost businesses, land and homes in political hysteria after Pearl Harbour: abruptly classified as enemy aliens they were cleared off the west coast and interned, in squalid conditions and under armed guard between 1941 and 1945. It took until the 80s for the Civil Liberties Act to offer proper reparations, apology and admission of its racist absurdity. After all, as one character says, “we’re at war with Italy and nobody’s putting Joe di Maggio in a camp”.
Takei has long spoken about this period, and it is at the heart of this musical by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione. As the old soldier, Sam, he book-ends a memory play in which Sam’s young self – played with fierce endearing energy by Telly Leung – is passionately patriotic and wants to enlist, save American values from Germany and the distant Empire of Japan.
In the family Takei plays the grandfather, insisting on building a garden in the grim dustbowl to which they are condemned. Briefly we see them first as a contented group in California, full of immigrant ambition and energy. Sam’s Dad (Masahi Fujimoto) is urging him towards law school, his big sister Kei (Aynrand Ferrer, a beautiful singer) ever anxiously maternal. She becomes the one most urgently trying after the arrest to make everything all right for the extended family in their undeserved humiliation. Overhead looms the figure of Mike Masaoka in Washington, pleading the loyalty of his fellow Japanese-heritage Americans: he is both an advocate and, as time goes bitterly on, seen as a traitor who hang them out to dry.
We sit in ranks either side of the central camp (neat, evocative design by Mayou Trikerioti) and watch them being hectored by guards, their dignity ignored, issued with the notorious “loyalty questionnaires” demanding extreme patriotic affirmations. Papers which some, rather magnificently, make into origami flowers. But young Sam still loves America, enlists even as his father rips up his insulting questionnaire. He becomes a reckless war hero, America’s token “good Jap”, and the rift in the group widens as his friend and eventual brother-in-law Frankie in the camp leads a rebellion burning draft cards.
The book is, as Broadway requires, a rom-com at times: Sam falls for the camp nurse (a lovely, endearing performance by Megan Gardiner) and Frankie the rebel loves Kei. But the real engine of the plot and its best moments, is the ideology and division of loyalties which drag the family apart, through hardship and a tragic loss, all the way to the embittered figure played by Takei at the start.
The numbers are mainly generic Broadway, though rise wonderfully when with high flute sounds they draw most closely on Japanese music. And indeed words: like the urgent “Gaman” meaning “carry on, keep going” and the mournful Ishi Kara Ishi about moving a mountain stone by stone . There are understated but very Japanese moments: the old man hanging a wind-chime, Grandfather Takei’s meditative gardening, and his respectful bow to his middle-aged rebellious son who is being led away in handcuffs.
It drew me in ever more, especially in the harsher second act as the war takes its toll with two real coups-de-theatre: the huddle of helmets and shots as Sam’s Japanese regiment faces a sacrificial raid, and the news of Hiroshima: the ensemble stilled with horror and the “light of a thousand suns” blinds us in turn before suddenly a mic-waving DJ leads a Victory Swing. Nothing is said about the Japanese-Americans’ feeling about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it does not need to be. The shock is real. And as the fog of war clears, Sam is back and finds out how much he has lost , and how bitter is one seeming betrayal.
Good musicals can face tough bleak stories and irredeemable losses, however necessary the upbeat final moment and triumphant curtain-call. And this is a good one. Not perfect, not perhaps among the musical greats, but a piece of storytelling and performance which holds you fast. And there is shivering power in watching how much it means to old Takei to tell it.
Box office charingcrosstheatre.co.uk To 8 April