Jill Paice gives a luminous performance as an American war widow in 19th-century Japan in Eric Schorr's extremely unusual chamber musical.
With her porcelain skin, lilting soprano, and a perfect combination of demureness and forthrightness, Paice proves to be ideal casting for Schorr's heroine, Isabella Archer, a 35-year-old American woman who, somewhat impulsively, travels to Japan, where her late husband Ralph (Benjamin McHugh, who makes an appealing ghostly presence), used to spend time before returning to the U.S., where he was killed during the Civil War.
Isabella has developed a strong affinity to Japanese art, a fact she quickly reveals to American-born official Ernest Osmond (a way-too-bland Jeff Kready) who, all-too-conveniently, meets her when she lands in Japan and assumes the role of her guide. He not only immediately takes her to see a famed Japanese statue that profoundly impacts her, but soon introduces her to Horiyoshi (Mel Maghuyrop), one of the country's most renowned tattoo artists, even though the practice has become illegal.
Despite what would seem her proper upbringing, Isabella not only agrees to have a huge tattoo placed on her back, but falls in love with Horoyoshi -- developments that are clearly engineered by Ernest. His motives remain unclear for much of the show -- as we learn early on, they're not sexual, since he's romantically involved with his young male assistant, Akira (Austin Ku) -- and when Schorr finally lets the proverbial cat out of the bag, it turns out to be a jaw-dropping plot twist that would make Hugh Wheeler blush!
Schorr's other major misstep -- aside from his prosaic, often banal lyrics -- is a late first-act sequence that involves a brief presentation of a Noh play for visiting U.S. former president Ulysses S. Grant (a fine Mike O'Carroll), who is then roundly chastised by Isabella for letting her husband perish during the battle of Shiloh.Neither director Johanna McKeon nor choreographer Tricia Brouk can do much with this ill-conceived sequence on the tiny Atlantic 2 stage, although their work fares better elsewhere, and the very fine work of video/projection designer David M. Barber -- seen on background screens throughout the proceedings -- is slightly underused here.
To her credit, no matter how ludicrous or improbable the show's developments become, Paice remains fully committed. She handles Schorr's pretty melodies quite well, notably the Act I finale "Magic Needles," and "The Spider," which is the show's quasi 11-o-clock number, as well as making the author's words come to life.
The only performance that even rivals Paice's -- as occasionally tops it -- is the lovely Manna Nichols, who does wonders with the role of Sachiko, a former courtesan who becomes Horiyoshi's lover and muse, and who resents the presence of Isabella. She's also granted the musical's prettiest song, "Looking-back Willow," which affirms that Schorr is a talented man who probably just needs more guidance (and a collaborator or two) to create a more satisfying piece of musical theater.