Ali Ewolldt and Doan Mackenzie in Honor
(© Richard Termine)
Ali Ewolldt and Doan Mackenzie in Honor
(© Richard Termine)
Having found early success in their still-young careers with Illyria, their musical adaptation of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Peter Mills and Cara Reichel have gone back to the Bard with Honor, making its world premiere at the Hudson Guild, which loosely transplants As You Like It to feudal Japan.

As always, there are more than enough virtues in this enterprising pair's work to recommend a visit; most notably, Mills' gift for infectious melodies -- little of which, however, is Japanese is flavor -- and his singular brand of super-smart word play that makes him a realistic successor to the mantle of Stephen Sondheim.

Getting to the good parts of Honor, however, takes a bit of patience, as Reichel's staging of the too-lengthy opening court scenes, with far too may kimono-clad men running around in battle, are downright confusing. One might even be surprised to learn that Lord Takehiro, the rightful ruler (played by the excellent Ming Lee) has escaped rather than been killed.

But once we're into the woods, as it were, Honor begins to weave its spell, especially when it focuses on the sure-to-be-inevitable pairing of Hana (the lovely Diana Veronica Phelan), the cross-dressing young woman in exile in the forest, and Yoshiro (the thoroughly winning Vincent Rodriguez III), the banished samurai hopelessly in love with her.

Mills and Reichel also do especially well with the romantic push-and-pull between the sharp-tounged peasant Mitsuko and her dim-witted suitor Kuro (the sublimely comic Jaygee Macapaguay and Romney Piamonte, who score big-time with the clever "So Do I"). Indeed, Honor would have been better served by giving a little more time -- not to mention a song -- to its third romantic couple, Ichiro and Kiku (Doan MacKenzie and Ali Ewoldt), and foregoing a sword fight or two.

Best of all, though, is the scene-stealing presence of Stephen Eng as Nobuyuki, Hana's lazy, slightly shifty, and altogether lovable guardian. Early in Act I, Mills provides him with a superb Sondheim-like patter number, "Little Gray Stone" -- which is ostensibly about the ancient game of Go -- and he continues to light up the stage with his inspired comic delivery.

But while the Japanese setting could certainly allow for a sumptuous production, the budget of Prospect Theatre, the company founded by Mills and Reichel, necessitates something so sparse that the result is often visually dull. Rather more problematic is that the pair have overlaid far too much actual violence -- not to mention countless threats of seppuku (honorable suicide) -- on a piece that is essentially a romantic comedy, and the tonal shifts are far too jarring.

A dash of melancholy, provided here by the wise and weary warrior Makoto (a very fine Alan Ariano), is absolutely appropriate to this story; but outright bloodshed just isn't. There would be no dishonor if everyone in Honor lived, happily ever after or not.