"Tokio Confidential." A Tattoo Musical
Last Thursday, Brian and I attended Tokio Confidential, a musical that centers around Japanese culture and tattooing. Yes, a tattoo musical. How could we not see it?
Written and composed by Eric Schorr and directed by Johanna McKeon, Tokio Confidential takes place in Japan in 1879, a time when tattooing was outlawed and underground (although an exception was made for tourists wishing a permanent souvenir). One such visitor is Isabella Archer, a young widow who lost her husband in the American Civil War, and who travels to Japan to find the beauty and magic her husband so often spoke of and promised to show her. Upon arrival, she meets fellow American Ernest and his gay lover Akira who bring her to Tokyo's pleasure district and soon introduce her to Horiyoshi (sound familiar?), who becomes her tattoo artist and lover. Horiyoshi transforms her into a work of art, which leads to a dark end.
... an end I won't spoil for anyone who wants to see the play at the Atlantic Theater Stage 2 in Manhattan before it closes this weekend on February 19th.
Tokio Confidential is meticulously researched (research supported in part by The Asian Cultural Council) and you get the feeling that Schorr is covered in tattoos, although he says in The Huffington Post that he's just a "tattoo voyeur." The cast sing of ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblocks prints that inspired traditional tattoo designs, and of tebori, the hand tattooing method. The mostly grey-haired crowd got a full education on the art form. But we wondered if they'd retain it. Beautiful voices carry each lesson within lyrics like "lots of money, lots of pain" and "what have I done," but there are no real choruses to sing and remember once you leave the theater. Perhaps, it would be best if the academics are left in the dialog, and the tunes were catchier. It is musical theater after all.
Beyond tattooing and woodblock prints, Schorr explores other Japanese arts like Noh, which he describes as "one of the oldest forms of what we might call musical theater" that "artfully and seamlessly combine speech, song, and dance." It took me a while in the beginning to realize that the abstraction of the cast's movements were a nod to Noh, and it was a bit distracting; however, I did enjoy the choreography when placed in the context of a Noh performance within the story line.
The cast and orchestra are indeed fantastic, and Jill Paice who plays the lead Isabella has the luminescent skin that tattooists would die to work on. [And that's also noted in the dialogue.] Yet they are given the task to capture the soul of tattooing, to truly convey the experience of transformation, the raw desire to endure pain for art. And how does one do it in a two-hour musical?
It's a valiant effort but almost impossible to accomplish.
For more on Tokio Confidential, see the video below as well as interviews with Shorr and Mckeon, and bios of cast and crew. Tickets are still available for performances through Sunday.