Max Vernon’s off-beat musical ‘The Tattooed Lady’ hits the PTC stage

The Tattooed Lady
Pictured are Grace Slear, Jackie Hoffman, Sophia Ramos, Katie Thompson, Anastacia McCleskey and Kim Blanck during a rehearsal for ‘The Tattooed Lady.’
Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Philadelphia Theatre Company, in its first season under the new leadership of co-Artistic Directors Tabi Magar and Tyler Dobrowsky, present the world premiere of ‘The Tattooed Lady‘. This wonderfully weird new musical with its book, music, and lyrics by Max Vernon, book by Erin Courtney, and direction and development by Ellie Hayman, stars Jackie Hoffman and opens at the Suzanne Roberts Theater on Oct. 29.

Those are the facts. After that, you’re on your own.

Mostly because Vernon is beloved for penning majestically menacing, long-in-development, off-beat, Off Broadway hit musicals such as ‘WIRED’, ’30 Million’, ‘The View UpStairs’ and ‘KPOP’. And ‘In 2012, Erin Courtney won a Special Citation Obie Award for her play ‘A Map of Virtue’

“Max Vernon never writes a typical rock musical,” says PTC’s Dobrowsky of Tattooed Lady’s explosive cabaret.

Its story focuses on the imaginary Ida Gibson, an aging one-time sideshow performer from the 1920s made to confront her tattooed past in the dry, suburban present while touching on elements of female empowerment, personal autonomy and secret relationships between mothers and daughters, a return to artistic glories, and 100 of tattooed ghosts.

“Max’s musical celebrates the resilience of women,” says PTC’s Magar.

“We actually became part of Philadelphia in the recent past through the Kimmel Center’s program with Joe’s Pub and the Public Theater in New York chose us to be part of their project,” adds Hayman. “It was like theater slumber camp. Max sang a few of its songs. Paige Price from Philadelphia Theatre Company was there, so she’s been a part of this from the beginning as part of our inner circle. With Taibi and Tyler aboard, there’s more of an all hands-on deck, more creative perspective of what is a forgotten moment in history.”

Vernon commences by stating that the magically bizarre tale of ‘The Tattooed Lady’ – something based on the legendary female artists from the 1880s onward with agency over their own bodies, happy to display full body tattoos at a time of prurient male suppression – is something that “happily, must be pushing the Philadelphia Theatre Company out of its comfort zone,” and, “in 2022, and the world we live in, if you’re making theater that isn’t pushing people out of their comfort zone, why are you even bothering? Why not try some last-ditch effort to revive theater? I do think, however, that Tyler and Taibi are mostly game for our wack-a-doo ideas. And that’s pretty cool.”

To the accompaniment of pipe organs, vibraphones, accordions, cello, guitar and toy piano – to say nothing of tuned saws and pitchy wine glasses — The Tattooed Lady’s world premiere promises to shatter as many theatrical taboos as it does the once-forbidden fruits of society and beauty.

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