The book (by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione, based on the experiences of Takei's family) is well-written, balancing dry wit with strong and clashing characters making difficult (and opposing) decisions in impossible situations. Look beneath the surface story to find that the real conflict in this drama is not between the Japanese-Americans and their U.S. Army imprisoners, but between those who are intent on proving their loyalty to their country and those who feel that, since the U.S. betrayed them first, it is up to the U.S. to re-establish that it has loyalty to its citizens. Neither position is wrong, both are passionately held, and what is at stake is literally life and death -- and that makes for a powerful and meaningful work of theater.
The actors were uniformly excellent. Lea Salonga is still the powerhouse performer she ever was. Telly Leung, Michael K. Lee, and the rest of the cast did a fine job. And the best compliment I can give to George Takei is that after the first few minutes, I forgot that it was him on that stage, that's how effectively he disappeared into his character as Ojii-chan.
To my mind, though, the true star of the show was the lighting design. There were subtleties, such as when slightly different shades of color created imaginary walls between spaces, and the allusion to chrysanthemums in some of the spots. I was already saying to Heather during intermission how impressed I was by the lighting design. And then came a particularly chilling sequence in Act II ("Itetsuita") which convinced me (who has never had an opinion on this topic before) Howell Binkley must win this year's Tony.
The scenic design by Donyale Werle also deserves special mention. It was by turns beautiful and stark, and always evocative of an entire world that must have been waiting for us just offstage.
The one area where I was disappointed with this show was, unfortunately, the songs. Both the lyrics and the music were, in general, run-of-the-mill contemporary Broadway. I don't know when the "every character has to have an inner monologue ballad and/or anthem" trend started, but it fails the "show don't tell" rule and it bores me. "With You" was a lovely duet, and "Paradise" was the obligatory (but well-done) opportunity for a secondary character to lead the company in a rousing big production number to set up the Act I finale, but other than that, I found the music unmemorable. This material might have been better served as a straight play, although a musical will draw larger audiences.
Of course, for me there was also a personal undercurrent. As you may know, my grandfather was interned by the British, as an enemy alien, on the Isle of Man for about 14 months in WW2. His circumstances were different, because he was a recently-arrived refugee and not a citizen, but many others in the Onchan camp were German-origin British Jews who had been in Britain for decades. And many of their arguments, from what I have read, were of the same nature -- do you volunteer for behind-enemy-lines espionage/saboteur duty to prove your loyalty and buy your family a chance at release? How long do you have to live at the racetrack while they build a more "permanent" camp for you before the reality hits you that you're not going home for a long time, if ever? Are the soldiers assigned to guard you a resource to be developed or an enemy to be duped? So perhaps I found myself a little more involved in the drama because it resonated with what I've been reading and writing about my own family's experience, but I think that any audience member would empathize with these characters, so effectively are they portrayed.
One last thought. I am not of Japanese descent, so I took in the parts of the show that alluded to both Japanese culture in general, and the experience of the Japanese-American community of the 1940s in particular, as an outsider. But I wonder to what degree those aspects of this show will parallel the experience of "Fiddler on the Roof" -- for the first generation who saw it, it was something to be proud of, a bit of our culture making it big on Broadway; for the second generation, it was a bit of an embarrassment, a bunch of stereotypes that we felt that we were supposed to be proud of but that many of us actually find kitschy, dated, and (in parts) even offensive. I hope that Takei and his creative team have dodged that danger, but there is no way yet to know.
Overall, though, this is a timely show that, even more importantly than being a cautionary tale about a time when America lost its moral compass, asks each of us to consider whether we would adopt the course of Sammy or Frankie, Mike or Tatsuo. Which of them sold out? Could any of us have Hannah's quiet bravery?
See this show. Ask these questions. Then question your answers.