Honor is a very ambitious new musical based on William Shakespeare’s popular As You Like It, with the twist that it’s set in feudal 16th century Japan and has an edge so dark that even women (the royals) carry around ancestral suicide daggers just in case. Honor is an uneven work and feels as if it could use another draft or two before it’s truly finished. But the most important components—a strong score and libretto—are already pretty much in place. Writers Peter Mills and Cara Reichel are faithful enough to the classic gender-bending romance that it’s recognizably As You Like It—in fact, it even retains bits and pieces of Shakespeare’s dialogue—but there is enough of a departure from the original story that it can truly stand as a work in its own right.
With all the samurai swords swinging, nicely staged by fight choreographer Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum, there’s certainly more violence, death and murder than the Bard wrote for As You Like It. There’s a ritual seppuku (suicide) in the first five minutes of the show. Characters are merged into other characters; some who were originally more minor become more prominent (Duke Frederick, for instance). The nature of at least one major character changes (Touchstone), and some characters just aren’t present, period. Despite its shortcomings, this proves a very very enjoyable production, and this is due in good part to the fact that Mills and Reichel have created a tighter, more cohesive/coherent story that isn’t so bogged down with all the extraneous characters taking up space in the forest of Arden
Erica Beck Hemminger’s scenic design and Dax Valdes’ choreography have some haunting instances of being merged into one, especially in the forest scenes as the Ensemble members bear bamboo branches and act as the “spirits of the trees” to whom the benign Takehiro/Duke Senior sings thanks for their protection. While costume designer Sidney Shannon’s floral patterns for the kimonos seem awfully modern for 16th century Japan, they’re gorgeous, nonetheless. There are a couple of awkward moments in the musical numbers, but for the most part, director Cara Reichel’s staging is elegant and inspired.
The biggest problems (at least in the performance I attended) are technical. The volume of the five-piece orchestra (piano, percussion, woodwinds, violin, cello) is not well-balanced. It comes entirely from one side of the stage and is bumped up to a point that it often overpowers the singers who are not miked. Some of the lovely lyrics are completely lost as a result, and this might also account for the fact that there are several pitch problems in what are otherwise quite beautiful singing voices. Unfortunately, the need for stronger voice projection also sometimes extends to general dialogue. Despite the fact that I was sitting only a couple of rows from the stage, there were times I was really straining to hear what some of the younger lead characters were saying. And having to keep up with Japanese characters’ identities is a lot of work. The names Hana (Rosalind) and Kiku (Celia) are easy enough to remember, but the cast program doesn’t list the Shakespeare equivalent along with the Japanese names, and it can be difficult to keep up with who’s who when an offstage character is mentioned in the dialogue.
Performances range from pretty good to excellent. Of the “young” cast, Diane Veronica Phelan (Hana/Rosalind) and Vincent Rodriguez III (Yoshiro/Orlando) make pleasant enough lovers, although they seem a bit mismatched. Their duet, "If I Were She" at the close of Act 1 is very touching. Jaygee Macapugay (Mitsuku/Phoebe), like Phelan and Rodriguez, has the tendency to mug and grimace during songs, but she is charming as the peasant girl who barks up the wrong bamboo shoot by falling for Hana, disguised as a boy. The real standout, though, is Romney Piamonte who is just delightful and very charismatic as Kuro/Silvius, the boy trying to win cold Mitsuku’s heart.
Takehiro/Duke Senior is wonderfully played (and sung) by veteran Broadway actor Ming Lee who brings a nuanced spirituality to the usurped diamyo’s role. David Shih is terrific as Takehiro’s brother and nemesis Katsunori/Duke Frederick. Katsunori’s character at present is written as a stock, almost cartoonish villain and is even made to look like the glowering bad guy we all associate with Toshiro Mifune samurai movies. Shih overcomes that by giving Katsunori’s ruthlessness an element of dignity and contemplative restraint. Since Shih also has a fine singing voice, it would have been nice for the two brothers to have a song together and possibly provide further depth to their complicated relationship.
Another Broadway and film veteran, Alan Ariano does an elegant star turn as the melancholy samurai Makoto, a darker character with a more haunted past—and a more doomed future—than his As You Like It counterpart. Jacques’ monologues "I met a fool i' the forest, A motley fool," and, of course, "All the world’s a stage" don’t seem to have an equivalent in Honor in either text or song, which is a bit disappointing. But Ariano really shines in the scene where Makoto teaches Yoshiro/Orlando haiku, which is followed by a captivating song, "By the Next New Moon."
Last but not least, Steven Eng takes home this production’s glory prize for his delicious portrayal of Nobuyuki, the lazy but loyal samurai charged with protecting Hana and Kiku. A far cry from the traditional fool Touchstone, Nobuyuki proudly espouses the fine art of self-preservation through being innocuous. His song, “Little Gray Stone," all about the benefits of cruising beneath the radar and “in between-ing” is Honor’s show stopper, and Eng performs it with great relish.
With a little more work, Honor probably has the potential to become a very popular show across theatre markets, both professional and amateur. As it stands now, Mills, Reichel and the company are to be commended for creating such a nice, tight, highly imaginative but very accessible adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, and giving it their own signature.