a theatre, film & pop culture review
Believe it or not, Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson is not television host Kathie Lee Gifford’s first foray into musical theatre; that would distinction would go to family-friendly Under the Bridge. But the 2005 adaptation of Natalie Savage Carlson’s popular children’s book and this purportedly much-more-adult fare have much in common (composer, clichés)– which is not exactly a good thing.
Scandalous tells the true story of Aimee Semple McPherson, a Canadian-born celebrity Evangelist who saved souls and healed the sick in 1920s Los Angeles. Extraordinarily popular, the charismatic Sister Aimee was a pioneer in the use of modern media and was the second woman to be granted a broadcast license, which she used to reach susceptible souls across the country.
But Aimee’s life wasn’t all good works and Hollywood glamor, though there was a lot of both. She had a knack for making sensational headlines, and at one point, she disappeared for five weeks, claiming to be kidnapped. By all accounts it seemed like she had run away with a lover, but no one really knows for sure — and Scandalous does little to enlighten this mystery, or any other torrid aspect of McPherson’s life (pill-popping, multiple love affairs), merely glossing over the juiciest bits. Instead, the overlong, nearly camp-free musical spanning nearly 40 years hits the highlights of Sister Aimee’s life from a rebellious teenager (She likes Shakespeare and dancing! The Devil must be in her!) to the trial revolving around her disappearance (which, exhaustingly, takes up an epic portion of Act II).
Sister Aimee led a fascinating life — which has inspired dozens of films (including the made-for-TV film The Disappearance of Aimee starring Faye Dunaway in the title role and Bette Davis as her domineering mother), books, documentaries, song lyrics (“Hooray for Hollywood“) and even a poem by Upton Sinclair (“An Evangelist Drowns“) — but you’d never it from this dull, trite, by-the-numbers musical. Gifford’s shallow characterizations are bested only by her schmaltzy, terribly rhymed lyrics (“Hey, little lassie / Come show me your assie.” Seriously.) and David Friedman and David Pomeranz’s generic, entirely forgettable score. The mostly film and tv composers (Big, Will & Grace) have only written one other musical that’s been produced stateside between them, and that musical is — you guessed it — Under the Bridge.
To match the overblown book and score, Walt Spangler has created a huge, eyesore of a set that looks like a disastrously tacky cross between Emerald City and Xanadu, but is meant to represent (advertise) Sister Aimee’s Foursquare Church. Broadway novice Gregorgy A Poplyk’s cheap, bespangled church robes look more something out of the circus than the Lord’s house (perhaps he utilized some leftover designs from his Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey’s production of Dragons). And while Lorin Latarro’s uninspired gospel-infused choreography doesn’t help liven things up, neither does first-time Broadway director David Armstrong’s aimless direction, which mostly consists of having the actors sing straight into the audience.
The game cast does their best with the lackluster material, but musical stalwarts like George Hearn, who plays the thankless roles of Aimee’s father and a narrow-minded pastor, are given scandalously little to do. The only individual to come out of this debacle largely unscathed is leading lady Carolee Carmello who gives an extraordinarily dedicated and vigorous performance as the super-ambitious and intensely compelling Aimee. The under-appreciated singer-actress has spent most of her career replacing leads mid-run (Sister Act, Mamma Mia!, Urinetown) with only a handful of originating turns (Parade) — most unworthy of her talent (Lestat). As McPherson, she’s on stage for all but 11 of 150 minutes, and in gorgeous voice, she throws herself full throttle into the unworthy material– so much so that she’s intensely “on” from scene one, with little room for growth. The energy of her portrayal is both exhausting and admirable, and certain to earn her a Tony Award nomination come May. It’s just too bad that such a glorious performance is confined to such an unholy work.