8Questions: Interview with ‘Allegiance’ actor Michael K. Lee

Michael K. Lee performs in Allegiance with Lea Salonga
Michael K. Lee performs in Allegiance with Lea Salonga

As a reader of 8Asians, you’re probably aware of the Broadway musical Allegiance, currently running at the Longacre Theatre in New York City. Featuring the talent of George Takei, Lea Salonga and Telly Leung, Allegiance opened on November 8th to positive critical acclaim. A show about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the musical is already making waves with original songs such as “Gaman,” “What Makes A Man” and Salonga’s uplifting and inspirational performance of “Higher.”

One part of Allegiance that captures an authentically American spirit of rebelliousness is the song “Paradise,” an energetic ensemble performance led by Michael K. Lee as the resolute draft resister Frankie Suzuki. A boisterous big band buster seething with saucy snark and swing, “Paradise” expresses the cynical sentiments of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee as they protested the government’s efforts to enlist them while their families remained incarcerated.

Thanks to The Fairy Princess, we had the chance to chat with Michael about his role in Allegiance:

I know the show has changed considerably since San Diego, with a few changes since previews began on October 6th. Can you share with us some of the changes?

The show has evolved a great deal since San Diego– You know, the show has evolved a great deal since first preview! Haha… all done with the express purpose of streamlining the story. On Broadway alone, we’ve added a new opening number, “Wishes on the Wind,” a new community/baseball scene, a new victory swing, and a new finale, “Still a Chance.” Seriously. And I’m not letting the cat out of the bag here, because I think anyone who was able to see our first shows and have been lucky enough to see it after opening have been privy to these changes. And they’re all so great.

Since the San Diego production, I think all of the characters have really been given dimension. Kei (Salonga) is stronger, Sammy (Telly Leung) more resolute with his convictions. My character Frankie has also been given more form, focus, and determination. Also, in San Diego– I didn’t sing my proposal to Kei!

Your character, Frankie Suzuki, was a rather rebellious character compared with Sammy. Knowing what you know about the incarceration, which side do you think you would have taken (Sammy, Frankie, maybe even Mike Masaoka)?

You want me to fight as an American? Then treat me as an American.

It’s a tough question. I was a social psychology major at Stanford, and one of the things I learned is that social circumstance dictates social behavior. If I were a young man in 1940s, wrongly imprisoned for my ethnicity, I think I would have done everything in my power to prove people wrong. I know when I was in high school, I did everything possible to fit in and be just like everyone else. My family was the only Asian family where I grew up in upstate New York. When the stakes are that high, I think the exuberance/naïveté of youth would have propelled me to fight and join the 442nd Regiment. But after graduating from college, studying Asian American history, knowing about the civil rights era now– in a post-Vietnam War era– I think I would have done what Frankie did: You want me to fight as an American? Then treat me as an American.

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‘The Who’s TOMMY’ opens May 13, 2015 at East West Players featuring Deedee Magno Hall, Joseph Morales, Cliffton Hall, and Parvesh Cheena

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East West Players (EWP), the nation’s longest-running professional theatre of color in the country and the largest producing organization of Asian American artistic work, continues its 50th Anniversary Season, Golden, with “The Who’s TOMMY,” Music and Lyrics by Pete Townshend, Book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff, Additional Music and Lyrics by John Entwistle and Keith Moon. “The Who’s TOMMY” was originally produced on Broadway by Pace Theatrical Group and Dodger Productions with Kardana Productions. The production is directed by Snehal Desai (EWP’s “A Nice Indian Boy”) with musical direction by Marc Macalintal (EWP’s “Chess,” “Krunk Fu Battle Battle”) and choreography by Janet Roston (Ovation Award and NAACP Award winner for “The Color Purple” at Celebration Theatre). Generous support for this production is provided by the S. Mark Taper Foundation Endowment for East West Players.

“The Who’s TOMMY” cast features Joseph Morales (“In The Heights” Broadway & National Tour, “Bombay Dreams” Broadway) as Tommy, Deedee Magno Hall, recently from “If/Then” on Broadway (“Miss Saigon” Broadway & International Tour, “Wicked” 1st National Tour) as Mrs. Walker, Cliffton Hall (“Miss Saigon” Broadway, 1st National Tour & International Tour, “Wicked” 1st National Tour) as Captain Walker, and Parvesh Cheena (NBC’s “Outsourced”) as Uncle Ernie. Also featured are Araceli Prasarttongosoth, Van Brunelle, Michayla Brown, Ryan Castellino, Cesar Cipriano, Cailan Rose, Constance Jewell Lopez, Maxwel Corpuz, Michael Daniel Dashefsky, Christine De Chavez, Caitlyn Calfas, Marius Beltran and Tina Nguyen.

About “The Who’s TOMMY:” Deprived of sight, hearing and speech by the shock of what he had witnessed as a child, young Tommy Walker seems lost to life – until he reveals an uncanny talent for the game of pinball. When his lost senses are suddenly restored, Tommy is hailed as a living miracle. The classic rock musical arrives for the first time at East West Players in an electrifying new production.

“We are thrilled to produce ‘The Who’s TOMMY’ on this auspicious occasion of EWP’s 50th Anniversary because the Who is also celebrating their 50th Anniversary this year,” says Tim Dang, Producing Artistic Director. “This cast represents the diverse landscape of America today and has talent that will knock your socks off. This production will bring a unique sound and look like no other production of ‘TOMMY.’”

The design team includes: Set design by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, costume design by Jenny Foldenauer, lighting design by Karyn Lawrence, sound design by Cricket Meyers, projections design by Sean Cawelti, and props by Marissa Bergman. Stage Manager is Ondina V. Dominguez.

All performances will be staged at the David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center of the Arts at 120 Judge John Aiso Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012. Previews are Thursday, November 6th through Saturday November 8th at 8pm and Sunday November 9th at 2pm. All preview seats are $28.

Opening Night for “The Who’s TOMMY” is Wednesday, May 13th at 8pm and includes a 7pm pre-performance cocktail reception, and a post-show reception with the cast and creative team. Call theater for availability. “Pay-What-You-Can” Performance is on Thursday, May 14th at 8pm. A special talkback with the cast and creative team is on Sunday, May 24th immediately following the performance. The production runs until June 7th.

Regular performances run Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets may be purchased online at eastwestplayers.org or by calling 213.625.7000. Regular tickets range from $43-58. Student and Senior discounts available. Dates, prices and details are subject to change.

Original “Anime Hip-Hop Martial Arts Musical” to be Workshopped by East West Players Writers’ Gallery in L.A.

You read that right– anime hip-hop martial arts musical! It’s all that and a bag of chips!*

East West Players has gathered a creative team to develop a new musical that utilizes all three art forms and a 25 minute presentation of this work in progress will be performed on Friday, November 20, 7:30pm at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. A Q&A discussion will follow.

The working title for the production is KRUNK-FU BATTLE BATTLE.

Description: The heart of hip-hop is in the battle. Young Norman Lee must learn this if he hopes to survive his new high school life as an Upper Westside import now transported to Bushwick, Brooklyn, after his Mom loses her 6-figure salary job. After being bullied, beat-down, and watching his Mom swallow her pride by accepting a job as a fast food fry cook, young Norman Lee enlists the guidance of Sir Master Cert to help him learn the ways of b-boy to compete against the baddest crew in Bushwick for respect, honor, and a chance to prove to his Mom that this life away from material wealth can and will work.

The creative team includes: bookwriter Qui Nguyen, lyricist Beau Sia, composer Marc Macalintal, hip-hop choreographer Jason Tyler Chong and anime consultant Jane Wu. The presentation is directed by East West Players’ artistic director Tim Dang and reunites Dang, Chong and Macalintal after their successful collaboration of the 2008 hit run of PIPPIN.

The Writers’ Gallery offers public readings of works that are being considered for the mainstage at East West Players and are presented in conjunction with the Japanese American National Museum and The National Center for the Preservation of Democracy. This workshop is made possible in part by The James Irvine Foundation and The National Endowment for the Arts which believes that a great nation deserves great art; and by the support of individual donors.

The Writers’ Gallery presentation of KRUNK-FU BATTLE BATTLE (working title) will be on
Date: Friday, November 20th
Time: 7:30pm
Venue: National Center for the Preservation of Democracy
111 North Central Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90012
Admission: free

For more information, please call East West Players at (213) 625-7000 or visit www.eastwestplayers.org. Dates and details are subject to change.

*Ok, I lied. No chips– no food and drink allowed inside at National Center for the Preservation of Democracy

More Asians on the Small Screen for the Fall Season

Ever since I got rid of my cable, my TV intake has decreased drastically, but I still get amusement from the little box and am especially looking forward to all of the wonderful Asians on TV: CBS has the return of The Mentalist with Tim Kang and also has the delight of having Daniel Henney on Three Rivers, which hasn’t premiered yet. Glee — the talk of the town — has Jenna Ushkowitz. Community has funny Doc gone comedic actor  Ken Jeong. And last but not least, ’cause he’s like my favorite, is John Cho on FlashForward.

All of the shows are newbies, The Mentalist being the most senior of the group,  but I’m very excited that writers, casting directors, producers, directors, whoever it was that decided that the small screen needed some Asians on it deserves a high-five or a pat on the back. No, I’m not snubbing Sandra Oh or Daniel Dae Kim; I’m just mentioning the beautiful new Asian faces we get to see on TV, that’s all.