‘Tokio Confidential’ is not like typical Broadway musicals: It has human characters and a real plot

'Tokio Confidential.' ()
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The main character in Tokio Confidential is, quite literally, the girl with the dragon tattoo.

But this is no high-octane thriller. This new off-Broadway musical is a sweet and understated romance, where even the darkest elements of the story—murder, extortion, betrayal—are handled with gentle serenity.

Widowed during the Civil War, American Isabella Archer travels in 1879 to Japan to try to figure out why her late husband so loved the country. When a fellow American named Osmond, an expert on Japanese art, tells her about the country’s history of tattooing—now outlawed by the emperor, but not prohibited for foreigners—she is immediately taken by the idea of getting a tattoo herself: “Why just look at the prints when you can become one?” she asks. She meets Horiyoshi, Tokyo’s premier tattoo artist, and begins the long and painful process, lasting a full year and requiring agonizing needlework utilizing poison inks.

The plot unfolds slowly and deliberately in Act I, with restrained emotion and formal dialogue. The four-piece orchestra (piano, bass, flute, reeds) keeps the tone light and pretty, but still cool to the touch. Only toward the end of the act do the melodies grow warmer as the characters begin to show their feelings: Isabella’s rage over her husband’s death at the Battle of Shiloh, Osmond’s discreet desire for his male interpreter, the shame beneath Horiyoshi’s harsh bravado.

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The second act takes a dramatic turn when Horiyoshi falls in love with the porcelain-skinned Isabella, only to realize that Osmond has hatched an unimaginably horrific scheme that would take her from him. Emotions build, as jealousies flare and betrayals abound; the music, unfortunately, lags behind the plot, staying pretty and romantic long after the story has turned sinister and dark. This tragic tale of love and sacrifice, murder and deceit—part Romeo and Juliet, part Silence of the Lambs—should see its passions climb higher and higher, but instead they plateau too soon.

Nonetheless, it’s an original and sincere piece of well-crafted theater, with a distinct point of view and a unique voice. Eric Schorr’s music, heavy on flute and bassoon, neatly bridges cultures in its references. And the details of the production on the Atlantic Theater’s compact basement Stage 2 are handled expertly, from David M. Barber’s efficient set of shifting screens to Darrel Maloney’s gorgeous video projections and Jacob A. Climer’s period-perfect costumes. Under Johanna McKeon’s direction, the evening proceeds at a steady pace, without ever getting slack.

Jill Paice is magnificent as Isabella, self-possessed and full of optimism despite her personal difficulties; her voice is pure and compelling here, the musical thread that ties the whole evening together. Mel Sagrado Maghuyop maintains a deep intensity as Horiyoshi, trying to keep his emotions in check even as his eyes betray them at every turn. The rest of the cast is also fine, including Jeff Kready, whose affable demeanor as Osmond makes his character’s horrible intentions all the more surprising. Manna Nichols, who plays Horiyoshi’s knowing lover Sachiko, only rarely gets to sing, but when she does—in the wistful Act II number “Looking Back Willow”—she shines.

Tokio Confidential may not have the elements of a typical Broadway musical: no sing-along show-stoppers, no feel-good happy ending. But instead of bombast and melodrama, it has human characters, a real plot, and an honest heart. And throughout, it retains an appreciation for art itself, right up until its closing moments, where clever projections create a beautiful image that makes the audience—very gently—gasp.

Tokio Confidential is showing at the Atlantic Theater Stage 2, at 330 W. 16th St. Tickets are $45. Visit www.ticketcentral.com.