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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Vincent Rodriguez III and Diane Veronica Phelan.
Photo by Richard Termine.

Who needs sex when you've got pride? The pleasures of the flesh - overrated, as always, in the world of Japanese-themed literature - don't receive much of a reevaluation in Prospect Theater Company's new musical Honor. But rest assured, the thrill of standing up for your family, whether that means killing others or killing yourself, is embraced with enough libidinous abandon to make up for it.

Well, almost. Dedication to one's kin before one's own urges isn't enough to place Peter Mills and Cara Reichel's new show at the Hudson Guild Theatre in a timeless pantheon of entertainment. No Shogun is this - James Clavell's erotically charged epic is too sweeping in scope; even Rodgers and Hammerstein's modernist spin (for 1958) on similar themes, Flower Drum Song, goes further with its concept of generational give-and-take.

But in the grand Broadway-styled tradition, a half-dozen stage-filling swordfights (the blood-pumping work of Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum) and at least as many rapturous melodies, from the writers who should be known as Off-Broadway's premiere composing couple, don't hurt. They're also not enough to elevate this unprepossessing look at filial responsibility in feudal Japan beyond the level of a promising idea. Whenever another song begins about the fleeting nature of life or the flitting vagaries of chance, it's hard not to realize exactly what you're missing.

That would be the grander significance of the struggle of the show's central characters. Though equal doses Kurosawa and Pacific Overtures in look and manner, Honor owes a greater debt to William Shakespeare's urban-invades-pastoral lark As You Like It - one that's not repaid by addressing the themes that make that outwardly frivolous comedy so deceptively insightful.

The basic story tracks closely, with minor alterations: A young woman of the court, Hana (Diane Veronica Phelan), flees to the country after her daimyo father Takehiro (Ming Lee) is overthrown by the dastardly Katsunori (David Shih), taking with her only her friend Kiku (Ali Ewoldt) and comic protector Nobuyuki (Steven Eng). A young would-be samurai named Yoshiro (Vincent Rodriguez III) is banished after seeking revenge for his own father's murder, and winds up in the same forest as Hana, whom he's secretly loved since she awarded him for bravery. Except, of course, she's disguised herself as a man for protection.

Children must learn when to obey their parents' wishes and when not to. The impetuous must learn patience, primarily from the philosophical sword instructor Makoto (Alan Ariano), whose method starts and ends with improvisational poetry. And both the throne folk and the simple folk they meet in the forest must learn the single, inalterable truth about war: people die.

The structure and order of the various samurai and daimyos, so essential to the atmosphere, induces a direct, more serious political bent seemingly more suited to an adaptation of Hamlet. And the last third of the show, consumed with battle planning and revenge, spirals into an even darker direction that suggests Mills and Reichel had more on their minds than the cross-dressing, misdirection, and melodrama of Shakespeare's original.

Yet their innate musical-comedy inclinations, realized much more fully in previous Prospect shows like The Pursuit of Persephone and Iron Curtain, undermine this darker interpretation. The country lovers mixed up in Hana's mess, here called Kuro (Romney Piamonte) and Mitsuko (Jaygee Macapugay), are a mugging pair of comic secondaries more akin to Oklahoma!'s Ado Annie and Will Parker than their more complex Shakespearean counterparts. While Mills and Reichel's music (as gracefully orchestrated by Erika Ito for strings and woodwinds) summons the proper wistful ambience, Mills's intricate lyrics convey an emotional knowingness few characters display in dialogue, while Reichel's simple-but-elegant staging allows too many actors' takes, grunts, and grimaces to mine for laughs rather than truth.

Rodriguez, a soulful young performer in his New York debut, is especially prone to this, undercutting the appealing aura of wounded innocence (and impressive voice) he otherwise brings to Yoshiro. Eng plays even more broadly into Nobuyuki's many jokes, his "who, me?" grins telegraphing (and spoiling) far too many laughs. Phelan is wonderfully conflicted as Hana, torn between obligations to her mother (a radiant but underused Christine Toy Johnson) and herself, but less convincing as the man who schools Yoshiro in the ways of poetic love. Shih and Lee make a superb yin-and-yang pair for the daimyoship in dispute.

It's Ariano, however, who walks away with the most scenes and songs. He grants Makoto a stunning serenity that codifies the work's treatment of duty and tradition better than most of the writing or design (including Sidney Shannon's exquisitely appointed costumes). Ariano's understatement lets you focus on the words and the feelings behind them - a dual-edged sword, as the missing musings of theatre, sexuality, and humanity that fuel As You Like It become even more apparent.

Lacking so many of that play's gender- and mind-bending confusions, this musical can't sustain itself on the pleasant little story that remains. Given Japan's own history of kabuki, which has a direct corollary in the men-playing-women conceit of Shakespeare's theatre that's so crucial to As You Like It, the comparative shallowness of Honor is the evening's only real surprise.

Through May 18
Hudson Guild Theatre, 441 West 26th Street between 9th and 10th
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Prospect Theater Company

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