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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Now called Honor, this popular romantic comedy has been relocated to 16th Century Japan, a place and era big on pride in royal birth and honor. Instead of the Dukes of Elizabethan England, we have Daimyos engaging in power struggles that exile defeated factions from palatial splendor to a more rustic forest existence. The farcical aspects of the various romantic subplots that Shakespeare juggled before a happy ending could unite all the lovers and restore power to the "good" ruler are all there. However, instead of wrestling matches we have fights fought with deadly swords. People actually die. Leading lady Hana ((As You Like It's Rosalind) now has a mother, Phoebe, who kills herself to save the family honor.
Like Mills and Reichel, Kenneth Branagh also moved Shakespeare's Arden Forest to Japan, though during the nineteenth century and not as a musical. While that film was well-received, Branagh received some flak for not using any Asian actors. Not so the Prospect Theater production which has a mostly Asian cast to lend authenticity to the setting, even though Mills' always appealing score makes no attempt to introduce an Asian flavor. The cast does good work, though only Diana Veronica Phelan as Hana, Ming Lee as her banished father, Alan Ariano as the sensitive sword instructor Makoto have the vocal power to do full justice to the score and give us a chance to appreciate the lyrics. Vincent Rodriguez III who plays Hana's lover, Yoshiro also has a fine voice though his acting is still a bit tentative.
It's not easy to turn comedy into dramedy and reconcile farcical twists and turns with much more somber events. Consequently, Mills and Reichel deserve credit for tackling this difficult combination even though it isn't as successful as their previous non-genre mixing efforts like The Pursuit of Persephone, The Flood and Iron Curtain. What works best is the heavy sword play. Superbly choreographed by Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum the fight scenes are accompanied by this production's most powerful musical moments.
What also works quite well is Erica Beck Hemminger's spare staging: A backdrop of sliding panels effectively suggests the shift from palace to rustic life. A few slim trees suspended from the ceiling and some hand-held leafy boughs are just enough of a forest in which the convoluted plot can unfold.
For anyone who wants the altered plot in a nutgraph: Rosalind now Hana, the daughter of a banished duke, now a Samurai ruler falls in love with Orlando now Yoshiro the disinherited son of one of the Smurai's friends. When she is banished from the court by her usurping uncle Hana switches genders and travels with her loyal cousin Celia now Kiku and the jester Touchstone-now Nobuyuki to the Forest where her father and his friends live in exile. Oservations on life and love follow, friends are made, and families are reunited. By the play's end Hana once again a girl marries her Yoshiro. Other sets of lovers Include Kiku and Yoshiro's older brother Oliver, now Ishiro. As Ishiro becomes a gentler, kinder young man so the mean Samurai conveniently espouses religion so that his exiled brother can rule once again. To borrow from another play, all's well that ends well.
Some other Shakepare plays that have been turned into musicals: The Comedy of Errors— The Boys from Syracuse, probably the first successful such adaptation by George Abbott, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
The Taming of the Shrew—Kiss Me, Kate with a classic score by Cole Porter that includes hits like Brush Up Your Shakespeare.
Romeo and Juliet— West Side Story by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim
The Disney super hit The Lion King owes its plot to Hamlet with the human characters transformed into animals. (Simba is Hamlet).
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Leonard Maltin's 2008 Movie Guide