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Review: The Tattooed Lady Fails to Leave Much of a Mark

The new musical, starring Jackie Hoffman, is currently running at Philadelphia Theatre Company.

Jackie Hoffman and the cast of The Tattooed Lady
(© Johanna Austin)

Life leaves its mark on every human being. Some are proudly self-imposed; other wounds are unavoidably self-inflicted. The Tattooed Lady, a new musical that opens the season at Philadelphia Theatre Company, considers both types of traumas. But the action in this overstuffed yet underrealized sideshow tale often sputters in many different directions, like wayward ink bleeding out of a hastily given tatt.

Composer Max Vernon and librettist Erin Courtney clumsily attempt to limn past and present. In 1980 Spokane, Ida Gibson (Jackie Hoffman) lives as a holy-rolling senior citizen, leading crusades against deviant art and dirty books. Her sole mission in life is to shield her granddaughter Joy (Maya Lagerstam) from the wages of sin.

Several decades earlier, though, Ida pursued the exact path she now decries, touring the country as the centerpiece of a traveling freak show. Known as Imagena the Living Museum, she turned her body into a shrine to the generation of tattooed women who came before her, pioneering the art and science of body modification. It’s no accident that 75-year-old Ida now hides behind a velour track suit zipped up to her chin even in sweltering weather — underneath, there’s hardly an inch of skin that isn’t stained with a visual mark of her painful personal history.

Uncomfortable memories flood back when Bob Baxter (Anthony Lawton), a former carnival impresario, arrives unexpectedly on her doorstep. This is also when the musical begins to lose its narrative focus. After introducing the central conflict between Ida and her granddaughter, Vernon and Courtney devote most of the first act to the history of tattooed ladies in American popular culture. They highlight real historical figures, including Nora Hildebrandt (Katie Thompson), La Belle Irene (Jessie Shelton), and Maud Wagner (Kim Blanck), who is believed to have been the first female professional tattoo artist. But they rarely linger on any woman long enough to delve beneath the surface of their story.

Why, for example, did Irene — who self-consciously balanced beauty with body modification as part of her act — come to resent her tattoos so much that she mutilated herself to remove them? Why was Maud Wagner so resistant to inking tattoos that were not of her own design that she squandered her talents and became destitute? The unmemorable musical numbers interspersed throughout Act 1 are largely ensembles rather than character songs, which give a sense of background without depth. This lack of individuation causes even a performer as distinctive as Thompson, who tends to run away with any show she’s in, to seem muted and reserved.

The second act attempts to organize and contextualize the material by presenting Ida’s life in more-or-less chronological order, with Ashley Pérez Flanagan contributing some genuine spark and powerhouse vocals as the wide-eyed Imagena. Anastacia McCleskey comes to full life as Eddie Gibson, who introduces Ida to the pleasures of true love and the exquisite pain of the tattoo needle. Yet while the first act unfolded in a slow soft focus, the second barrels ahead at an unreasonable clip, bulldozing the few revelations that the writers try to bake into their otherwise general script.

Throughout the performance, Hoffman’s Ida functions more as a bystander than an active participant in her own narrative. Director Ellie Heyman could find a better way to integrate her into the musical’s unfolding arc; as it stands, she mostly hugs the sidelines, interjecting a snappy quip every now and then. When it comes time to drop her veil and deliver an 11-o’clock number, you realize that this is the first moment all night when the ostensible title character has been allowed to take center stage. It’s criminal to put such a dynamic actor in a corner for the better part of a two-and-a-half-hour musical.

Elsewhere, Heyman and choreographer Mayte Natalio seem stifled by the narrow stage dimensions of the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, most of which is dwarfed by Lex Liang’s split-level moving set. The ensemble is often forced to the lip of the stage in choral numbers, which limits their range of movement. And with action occurring simultaneously on multiple levels, it can be hard to tell where the viewer’s attention is meant to be drawn. Nevin Steinberg’s muddy sound design obscures the majority of lyrics, and the ones that can be deciphered are far from memorable.

Unlike Side Show — perhaps the most famous depiction of carnie life onstage — The Tattooed Lady foregrounds stories of empowerment over exploitation. Although the women who painted their bodies and ran away with the circus didn’t have an easy road, they lived authentically and unapologetically. They wore their iconoclasm on their brightly colored flesh. Too bad that Vernon and Courtney didn't give us a chance to know what they felt beneath the skin.