Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Broadway Theatre Review: Scandalous

Kathie Lee Gifford’s new musical is decidedly unscandalous

Carolee Carmello and company in Scandalous. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

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).

Edward Watts and Carolee Carmello in Scandalous (though it looks strangely like a scene from Parade…). Photo by: Jeremy Daniel.

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.

Scandalous
Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019
October 13, 2012 – Open-ended
Opened  November 15, 2012

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3 comments on “Broadway Theatre Review: Scandalous

  1. steamchip
    December 2, 2012

    (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.)

    There is really nothing to tell, its just the stuff of old ladies leaning on backyard fences. Plenty of gossip, but never a single thing anyone can put their finger on.

    My study of her life is by no means complete, but I have found nothing in the biographies to support multiple or even singular love affairs:
    1.Blumhofer, Edith L. Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody’s Sister.
    2. Epstein, Daniel Mark. Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson .
    3. Sutton, Matthew Avery. Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America.

    Get one, get them all.

    To parse the finer details of the 1926 kidnapping, I recommend getting Raymond L.Cox’s book, “The Evidence Demands a Verdict,” as a companion work since it researches extensively Carmel, Ormiston, witnesses, etc., from various affidavits, court documents and other articles.

    Yes, it might be Aimee was addicted to sleeping pills. By 1927 she was an insomniac, unable to get any sleep. As it was she kept late hours and was an early riser, working on her sermons and other projects. As a long term user, the dosage had to be stronger and stronger to get the desired result. And so when she tried out a newer and stronger drug, with recovery from tropical fever and kidney illness present, it was probably hard to get the dosage right. OPPS

    “Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson,” may indeed tank. Too bad the real deal isn’t still around. She could command an audience of 100,000 easily, filling multiple times a week, stadiumloads of people. Her 5,300 seated Angelus Temple was filled to capacity multiple times a day.

    In 1925, while the Red Cross was dickering for funds, the 2nd truck convoy she arranged, was dropping off food and blankets to earthquake victims in a nearby town.

    Many hundreds of thousands of faith-healings, salivations and charities which fed perhaps 1.5 million starving people, BORING, except among the devout; consigning a historical religious personage to the back shelves in cold basement libraries.

    Add pills plus the wild imaginings of forbidden improprieties?!?

    She will be remembered forever.

    GO AIMEE

    Like

    • Julie
      December 2, 2012

      Hi, thanks for your comment. I wonder if you could tell me the nature of your research on Aimee?

      I don’t enough about her to dispute what you — or really, the musical — purport, but it does seem to me that her life is indeed more interesting than this newest dramatization demonstrates. And your right: no matter how fine Carolee’s performance, I don’t doubt the real Aimee would be even more magnetic.

      Like

  2. steamchip
    June 2, 2013

    Its been awhile, my reply is late in arriving, I get there eventually….but I see the “Scandalous” show tanked. maybe I’ll see it on DVD.

    > I wonder if you could tell me the nature of your research on Aimee? <

    Why certainly Julie, these books i earlier mentioned appear to give a fairly balanced biography of her life before and after the 1926 kidnapping:

    1.Blumhofer, Edith L. Aimee Semple McPherson: "Everybody’s Sister."
    2. Epstein, Daniel Mark. Sister Aimee: "The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson .
    3. Sutton, Matthew Avery. "Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America."

    As far as the 1926 kidnapping event goes, they work to preserve the integrity of the mystery, rather than to reveal too many facts that may unveil it. If handled in a modern court with the FBI scrutiny, (which did not investigate alleged kidnappings in 1926) it would have been much harder for news papers and the prosecution to pull off their shenanigans.

    Raymond L Cox, "The Verdict is In," is very useful on actual details about the 1926 kidnapping. It can be a tedious read as fact prone books are, but he lays it on with a trowel with references, testimonies and court documents where the other authors fall far short short. He goes into far more detail with the various witnesses from the area. He writes of the people who initially met McPherson after her immediate reappearance return, and testified how she showed much signs of stress and was emancipated to the point of being unrecognizable by many who saw her. Of her tracks 18 miles out, of a suspicious shack the LA police refused to investigate…..Her shoes were white with desert dust and her hands were covered with grime. Nine witnesses from the region testified for the defense while the prosecution could only come up with two unfavorable to McPherson.

    Nevertheless, if one reads between the lines of the other authors even without Cox, and ignores their speculative commentary, there is enough there to deduct McPherson was set upon by powerful forces for selfish reasons who had no interest whatsoever in investigating a possible kidnapping.

    The article on Wikipedia is useful for a summary and includes details especially about the kidnapping and other aspects of her life that other online articles about her tend to ignore.

    There may be other books, I have not read them all, as a few are coming out every several years. The first books about her life tend either to use as resources newspaper clippings, very biased as in Thomas Lately's works or just not scholarly as Robert Bahr's book, who writes more of a historical novel.

    The reason I say "my research is my no means complete," is because I'm always running into interesting factoids about McPherson. When she was running her radio station, KFSG, there is a quote attributed to her that Sutton has placed in his book:

    Hoover claimed that Aimee's station, KFSG, wandered off-frequency and that he ordered her radio station to be shut down by the Department of Commerce. Before he was elected President of the United States in November of 1928. The telegram to Hoover from Sister Aimee reportedly said:

    PLEASE ORDER YOUR MINIONS OF SATAN TO LEAVE MY STATION ALONE. YOU CANNOT EXPECT THE ALMIGHTY TO ABIDE BY YOUR WAVELENGTH NONSENSE. WHEN I OFFER MY PRAYERS TO HIM, I MUST FIT IN WITH HIS WAVE RECEPTION. OPEN THIS STATION AT ONCE!

    (55disneyland) JIM HILLIKER (a former radio station operator and now historian) wanted to investigate the truth of that story and the result is an interesting bit of detective and research work which indicates McPherson never sent that message.

    A forum commentator wrote: "Aimee was kind, popular and loved, and doubts she got that way by calling people "minions of Satan." "

    Hilliker wrote two articles, one in 2003 which he considers the story MIGHT be true,
    and a 2nd article in 2011, supported by more research, which he deducts the story is not true; that McPherson did not send such a message and how the legend originated.

    Anyway, the discussion is here:
    http://message.snopes.com/showthread.php?t=63104

    Jim Hilliker's first article is here:
    http://www.radioheritage.net/Story52.asp

    Jim Hilliker's 2nd article is here:
    http://jeff560.tripod.com/kfsg2.html

    Like

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