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Tokio Confidential takes place at a time when tattooing has been outlawed by the emperor in an attempt to do away with certain customs that might make the Japanese appear less civilized to the western visitors who have begun to flock there following the “opening” of Japan by Admiral Perry. Although the edict curtailed the work of the artists in this field who were acutely aware that the tattoo had the power to transform the personality as well as one’s life, it was largely ignored by the criminal element in the society and by those who found ways to profit from it.
Inspired by the highly revered but also controversial artistry that involves covering the naked body in colored designs, Schorr has composed a purposely unsettling but nevertheless intriguing musical about Isabella (Jill Paice) an American Civil War-widow, who in 1879, not only becomes enraptured by the beauty of the Japanese prints she has seen, but also intrigued with the idea to be a living work of art by having her body used as a canvas. Slides and projections of portions of famous Japanese prints on sliding panels are used for beautiful visual effect throughout the musical (the design work of Darrel Maloney.)
Intrigued by the stories and the culture of Japan told to her by her deceased husband Ralph (Benjamin McHugh, who remains within the musical as a ghostly presence,) Isabella voyages to Tokio (the former spelling of Tokyo.) It is there that fate plays a hand in her future when she is befriended by Ernest (Jeff Kready), an unscrupulous American art historian newly appointed Commissioner of Fine Arts and Akira (Austin Ku) his Japanese lover. Schemers with an insidious plan afoot, they arrange for Isabella to meet Horiyoshi (Mel Maghuyop) the foremost tattoo artist of the time.
Horiyoshi has been searching for the right model on which to paint what he hopes to be his masterpiece. Despite their cultural differences, the attraction between Horiyoshi and Isabella is immediate and fuels a love story that moves forward, under the purposefully mannered direction of Johanna McKeon, in a sedate, highly stylized homage to the pretensions of the traditional Noh Theater.
Unaware of the diabolical villainy being plotted by Ernest and Akira, in cahoots with Horiyoshi’s mistress and former courtesan Sachiko (Manna Nichols), Isabella and Horiyoshi deepen their emotional and spiritual connection. Schorr’s consistently pleasing if not especially exciting flute-dominating score efficiently fills in the gaps in the spoken and generally commendable libretto. It is played by four discreetly hidden on-stage musicians.
Paice, who played Scarlett O’Hara in the London production of Gone With the Wind, and appeared prominently in The 39 Steps, Curtains and Woman in White on Broadway, sings radiantly and is unquestionably a lovely and captivating work of art in her own right. Maghuyop gives an impressive performance as the by-beauty-smitten Horiyoshi. Kready and Ku are convincingly dastardly as the devious pair Ernest and Akira. However, it is the emotion-drenched aria of regret “Looking Back Willow,” as dramatically sung by Nichols that is the musical’s most memorable musical moment.
Mike O’Carroll is very fine in the small but surprisingly not incidental role of General Grant. There is nothing incidental about the attractive costumes by Jacob A. Climer and mood-enhancing lighting by Joel Silver. An opportunity is not lost to include a sampling of Noh Theater with appropriate choreography by Tricia Brouk.
Apparently committed to embracing the pervasive subtleties and restraints that define its presentation, Tokio Confidential might ultimately have been more compelling and impressive if Schorr had written a score to match the danger and the daring of its two ill-fated lovers.
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