There’s not much Carolee Carmello doesn’t do in her new Broadway musical.
The Tony Award-nominated actress ages 20 years and spends much of it dressed like a nurse, except the time when she’s dressed like a naughty Biblical Delilah. She belts out terrible song after terrible song. She faces off against the Ku Klux Klan, hands out roses to the audience and endures a rain of fake frogs.
But try as she might — and Carmello was ordered by a physician to be put on vocal rest the day before its opening night — nothing can save her ‘‘Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson,’’ a musical as overstuffed and uninspired as its title suggests.
An endless — 2 1/2 hours, but seemingly longer — biography of the controversial 1920s-era Pentecostal evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, the musical has a book and lyrics by TV host Kathie Lee Gifford, who proves she’s not going to give up her day job anytime soon. Music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman is almost absurd, linking one overwrought tune to another and then stuffing in another. Airport waiting lounges have better piped in music.
The tale of McPherson is something of Gifford’s Moby Dick, a project she’s been writing for a dozen years. The preacher is certainly a fascinating figure: She was a pioneer in radio evangelism who incorporated vaudeville elements in her sermons, considered the P.T. Barnum of the pulpit.
She fed millions during the Great Depression, but also had a mysterious five-week disappearance in 1926 that many believed was a fling with a married man. She died of a drug overdose in 1944.
But what opened Thursday at the Neil Simon Theatre is insipid and patronizing, a work that seems more at home in a church parking lot than on Broadway. The most aggravating thing is, at the end, the audience is no closer to understanding what really motivated McPherson at all.
Gifford, a proud Christian, says she’s written a warts-and-all portrait, but don’t believe it: It’s pure hagiography, except when it veers into camp, an endearing Gifford quality. (Sample lyric from the ensemble when McPherson disappears: ‘‘Lost or found?/Is she lost at sea/or just fooling around?")
It’s also got all the stereotypes you'd expect these days — a sassy black lady (Roz Ryan, still winning despite the sins), blissful tambourine bangers and old timey reporters yelling out questions like, ‘‘The miracles. How do you do it?’’
They’re not needed, mainly because Gifford ladles out huge chunks of exposition as if we can’t be trusted to follow the tale. (Sample statement from the heroine: ‘‘I'm going to take everything they’re using in Hollywood to build the Devil’s Kingdom and I'm going to use it to build God's. I'm going to give the people what they want while I'm giving them what they need.")
Director David Armstrong has apparently decided to allow this grotesque mockery of a musical to go on unedited. That explains why, instead of one illustrated sermon, we get two. And why McPherson’s trial goes on longer than most real court cases. One scene has McPherson doing a 400-word monologue.
Oddly, the songs and the book seem written by two different people since they step on each other’s toes so much, usually when one repeats what the other just said.
Armstrong also has allowed some of the most unsubtle dialogue ever heard to clang on stage. ‘‘I cannot ignore the voice of God. Wherever it leads me,’’ says McPherson to her mother.
‘‘Even if it means losing your mother?’’ her mother (a valiant Candy Buckley) asks, quivering, of course.
‘‘Come whatever may,’’ her daughter replies.
George Hearn, who plays McPherson’s father and later a rival preacher, is excellent and deserves better material. But not enough can be said about Carmello, who throws all she’s got into this. On opening night, a metal hook connected to a section of fabric became stuck onstage and it was Carmello — of course — who came to the rescue.
Pity she couldn’t rescue herself from this unholy work.
Where’s the real Aimee Semple McPherson — the subject of the musical “Scandalous” — when you need her?
In the 1920s, the media-savvy Sister Aimee, as she was known, became a religious superstar. She guided people to the light and helped them be reborn.
Kathie Lee Gifford’s overblown but undercooked singing bio could have used Sister Aimee’s curative abilities.
The “Today” host’s show has been in the works under various titles since 2005. It has finally landed on Broadway with the terrifically talented Carolee Carmello belting nearly nonstop as Aimee. So much so the actress was on doctor-ordered vocal rest to preserve her pipes the day before the premiere.
No wonder. The score by Gifford, who wrote the unadorned lyrics, and composers David Pomeranz and David Friedman comes in two similar flavors: pushy power ballad and “Up With People”-style anthem. Commanding as Carmello is, all the bombast soon leads to diminishing returns.
Subtitled “The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson,” the show is framed by a court case in Los Angeles in 1927. Sister Aimee has skidded into scandal after vanishing for six weeks. Was she kidnapped? Or did she run off with a lover? Don’t look to Gifford’s book for answers. The record is fuzzy on what really went down.
More egregious, though, is that the show’s creators and director David Armstong don’t give a glimpse of what Aimee’s magical power as a preacher was — either at the pulpit or on the radio.
All we know is that she put on a good show and that she always raised an arm to heaven for emphasis — sort of like the Statue of Liberty. But what was inside her that was magnetic?
The omission of such basic and essential information isn’t surprising, considering that “Scandalous” can’t decide what it wants to be.
Act I is serious stuff. Like Wikipedia, it wades through Aimee’s farmgirl youth, two marriages and her burgeoning evangelism. In Act II, Aimee goes Hollywood and builds her Angelus Temple. The show is a musical comedy, complete with a sassy sidekick named Emma Jo (Roz Ryan), who rolls her eyes and cracks wise: “They’re pious and it pious me off.” Groan.
Aimee, meantime, pops pills, tangles with rival reverend Brother Bob (George Hearn, in a thoroughly thankless role) and juggles two lovers. One is the married radio producer, Kenneth (Andrew Samonsky), the other an opportunistic gigolo actor, David (Edward Watts). Back at the trial, Aimee pulls a Hail Mary and resorts to blackmail to get off the hook.
Sister Aimee died in 1944 at age 53. Her colorful life has been grist for books, plays, films and even a Pete Seeger ballad. And now “Scandalous,” which, at the end of the day — and three hours — has blessed little to say.
Talk about a trial.
There are many who say that Broadway has been taking pointers from Vegas lately. But the new musical “Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson” has its eye on another entertainment capital: Branson, Mo.
Book writer and lyricist Kathie Lee Gifford tells the story of the superstar evangelist in the bland, straightforward way usually associated with that Midwestern city. Those expecting a kitschy train wreck — Kathie Lee’s writing a musical! — may be disappointed, because “Scandalous” isn’t disastrous. It’s merely monotonous.
The plot follows McPherson’s life from cradle — “It all started in Canada, when I was 6 weeks old,” McPherson (Carolee Carmello) informs us — to grave.
Two-and-a-half hours and 27 numbers later, “Aimee died of an accidental overdose of barbiturates,” her mother, Minnie (Candy Buckley), states plainly.
The intervening 54 years are action-packed, with McPherson building a religious empire in the 1920s and ’30s. The spunky little dynamo also found the time to have three husbands — two of them played by the well-toned Edward Watts. No wonder she popped pills to keep going.
Everything is spelled out for us in a painfully obvious way, while the show simultaneously shies from the most spectacular aspects of McPherson’s career. This is a biomusical of someone who began as a faith healer and spoke in tongues, yet we don’t see any of that. Did Gifford think it’d freak out a New York audience?
On the other hand, we are treated to the tired Broadway cliché of the brassy, sassy African-American belter. Roz Ryan does what she can — and she can do a lot — as former madame Emma Jo, who ends up as McPherson’s assistant, but the part’s thankless. Similarly, George Hearn (“Sunset Boulevard,” “La Cage aux Folles”) is wasted in the dual parts of McPherson’s father and a rival preacher.
At least “Scandalous” delivers sample-size tastes of the evangelist’s kitschy, Cecil B. DeMille-type sermons. A memorable scene involves Adam and Eve in flesh-colored body stockings, and a sequined apple.
A musical-theater trouper, Carmello — last seen as the Mother Superior in “Sister Act” — finally gets the starring role she’s been waiting for, and carries the show with go-for-broke energy. Sadly, she has a lot to do, but little to work with.
Indeed, the score by Gifford and composers David Pomeranz and David Friedman is so innocuous that at times you don’t even register that the actors have switched from speaking to singing. The one standout is the gently swinging “It’s Just You,” which you can picture Michael Bublé humming in the shower.
Carmello throws herself into the songs — her powerful final anthem, “I Have a Fire,” probably resonates over the entire tri-state area — but the material is undistinguished at best. “Why am I the fated daughter of such pompous piety?” she sings, setting up a strained rhyme. “Why must I be forced to swallow such religi-osity?”
Let’s just treat that as a rhetorical question.
The story is as familiar as anything in the Gospels. Little girl from Nowheresville dreams of fame on the world stage. Rebelling against a stern upbringing, she lights out for the big time, picking up and losing a husband or two before amassing an adoring audience. Then come the dark days, as her morals begin to melt in the hot Hollywood spotlight: the pill popping, the bad romances and legal squabbles, the flight from the scavenging reporters. Salvation arrives on cue, just in time for the finale.
“Scandalous,” a new Broadway musical about Aimee Semple McPherson, deviates from the boilerplate only in the distinctive passions of its heroine, whose fame derived not from stage or screen but from the pulpit. While collecting a fan base that would be the envy of any of her movie star contemporaries in the 1920s and ’30s, McPherson was also converting thousands to Christianity, healing the sick through the laying on of hands, and establishing the foundations on which the modern evangelical movement would be built.
“The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson,” as the show is subtitled, are actually much more fascinating than you would gather from this formulaic Broadway musical. With book and lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford and music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman, “Scandalous,” which opened on Thursday night at the Neil Simon Theater, condenses and rearranges McPherson’s story to fit smoothly into the familiar grooves of celebrity biography. In the process the show reduces McPherson’s remarkable life to a cliché-bestrewn fable about the wages of fame.
Ms. Gifford herself is something of an expert on that subject: she’s known primarily as a perky television morning show host with a bit of the mean girl lurking behind the blinding smile. Recently she’s begun moonlighting: “Under the Bridge,” a cutesy children’s musical with book and lyrics by Ms. Gifford, was produced Off Broadway in 2005. Broadway jackals suspicious of Ms. Gifford’s bona fides were surely hoping for an epoch-making turkey in time for Thanksgiving. Sorry, guys. “Scandalous” isn’t so much scandalously bad as it is generic and dull.
True, collectors of camp might find some minor pleasures in the splashy biblical pageants of the second act, when McPherson, portrayed with hearty gumption by Carolee Carmello, looks on with a twinkly eye as Adam and Eve chomp from a sequined apple, or vamps as an alluring Delilah as Samson groans in beefcake bondage.
But these self-consciously silly sequences are actually reasonable representations of the illustrated sermons McPherson regularly delivered as the Sunday night special at her spectacular Los Angeles church, the Angelus Temple. As Daniel Mark Epstein notes in his engrossing biography, she used “the American revival meeting’s dramatic structure to create a fluid form of religious theater that resembled, in all but content, a musical comedy.”
Broadway has specialized in its own lavish brand of religious theater lately: last season we were treated to another unheavenly hootenanny about an evangelical preacher, “Leap of Faith,” along with revivals of “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” And of course that merry sendup of the oddities of Mormonism remains the hottest ticket in town. But God and the good works (and mostly bad musicals) he inspires are almost reduced to a walk-on in “Scandalous,” which plays down McPherson’s extraordinary ministry and spends most of its time dramatizing the punishing peaks and valleys of her personal life.
On a glittery white set by Walt Spangler designed to evoke a grandiose pulpit, the show opens with McPherson facing the toughest of her literal trials. In 1926 she and her mother were charged with obstruction of justice in relation to McPherson’s mysterious disappearance from a Santa Monica, Calif., beach. McPherson said she was kidnapped, and after a month of being held prisoner escaped from her captors in Mexico. Rumormongers took a dim view of this strange story — and its admitted inconsistencies — and suggested she’d been holed up in a hotel with a lover.
As her fate hangs in the balance, McPherson steps forward to narrate (and narrate, and narrate) the story of her life, from her beginnings in rural Canada to the pinnacle of her achievement. Highlights and low points include her rapturous love for her first husband, the Irish-born preacher Robert Semple (Edward Watts, of handsome face and voice), who died shortly after their marriage while they were on a mission in China; the tangled relationship with her domineering mother, Minnie (a stolid Candy Buckley), who largely handles the management of McPherson’s booming career; the intimations of sexual scandal hovering around her cozy relationship with a radio technician (Andrew Samonsky); and her unhappy third marriage to a singer in the church, David Hutton, who’s been given a major aesthetic upgrade: unprepossessing in actuality, he’s portrayed by the gleamingly buffed Mr. Watts, now in a blond wig.
Ms. Carmello, a gloriously gifted singing actress, has never managed to snag a star-making breakout role on Broadway — not all that surprising in these difficult days for musical theater. Sister Aimee certainly provides plenty of opportunities for Ms. Carmello to thrill us with the purity and power of her voice. She leads a few rousing come-to-Jesus gospel-tinged numbers with bright-beaming intensity. She delivers the climactic soul-baring ballad with plenty of emotional heat. What she cannot do — no singer without the power of miracle could — is bring distinction to songs that never rise above the serviceable.
And while Ms. Carmello persuasively charts McPherson’s journey from innocent from the sticks to impassioned healer to disillusioned celebrity, Ms. Gifford’s book never really makes us see why McPherson had such mesmeric power over her followers, and only sketches in the details of her tremendous hold on the popular imagination in the years of her fame.
The mystery of faith healing is, of course, not an easy thing to dramatize. It may be just as well that “Scandalous” does not include a chorus line of sinners tossing their crutches into the wings and making like the Rockettes after Sister Aimee has laid a hand on their crippled limbs. But it might be a lot more fun — and certainly more memorable — if it did.
There is nothing remotely scandalous about "Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson," the biographical musical that has book, lyrics and additional music by Kathie Lee Gifford. Despite the inevitable celebrity-lite target on Gifford's back, the musical about the media-star Christian evangelist of the 1920s does not have the toxic aura of a vanity production. It is well-produced and professional.
It's also not interesting, alas, at least not interesting enough to sustain 2 1/2 hours of fast-forward storytelling and inspirational songs that almost always end in throbbing climax. At least as problematic is the bombardment of nursery-rhyme lyrics -- that is, "come with me, on bended knee" and "there's a child deep inside who won't be denied" and "You can touch the sky, why can't I?" and, oh, well, "Hey, little lassie, come show me your assie."
But we have a reason to give thanks, and that is Carolee Carmello. One of our most deeply wonderful, inexplicably underutilized singing actors, Carmello finally gets a giant vehicle that needs her massive talents. If life is fair, or enough people see this show, there won't be another second-cast Mother Superior in "Sister Act" or vampire's mother in "Lestat" for this amazing artist.
Her voice has the shading and shine of buffed metal -- copper and piercing one moment, pewter mellow the next. We see Aimee as a rebellious, theater-loving daughter of a strict fundamentalist mother (Candy Buckley) and indulgent father (George Hearn, later seen as the devious San Diego preacher who tries to destroy her). Along the way, she converts a brothel madam (Roz Ryan) into her loyal aide.
Aimee marries twice, becomes a radio pioneer, builds an empire, pops pills, collects men and probably faked her own kidnapping before she died at 53. Director David Armstrong gets all this to happen with relative clarity between the split marble stairs of her L.A. Angelus Temple, which looks like an ice palace.
In Aimee, Carmello -- who had to cancel two performances Wednesday for doctor-ordered vocal rest -- has a strenuous, exposed character who, with much better material, might have rivaled Mama Rose and Evita. Despite the monotony of the touch-what-you-dream songs (music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman), Carmello alone makes Aimee's journey feel as adventurous as it clearly was.
Larger-than-life figures, real and fictional, have long inspired musical theater: Jesus Christ. Don Quixote. Eva Peron. Aimee Semple McPherson.
If the last name doesn't ring a bell, McPherson was a charismatic evangelist who captured national attention back in the 1920s — first with theatrical sermons that drew thousands to her Los Angeles church, and spawned a pioneering radio program; then in a sensational legal case that found McPherson, a divorcee, accused of staging her own kidnapping in order to sneak away with her married lover.
Biographers, novelists, filmmakers and songwriters have studied and drawn on McPherson's winding tale through the years. Now Kathie Lee Gifford has made her the subject of a new Broadway musical, Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson (* * * out of four).
Wait, don't sneer. Gifford's libretto and lyrics for the show, which opened Thursday at the Neil Simon Theatre, aren't likely to reinvent the veteran chat-show hostess (and sometime singer and songwriter) as the Oscar Hammerstein II of her generation. There are awkward and banal word choices, including some cringe-inducing rhymes. In her second number, Why Can't I?, a teenage Aimee lashes out at her rigid mother with this doozy: "Why am I the fated daughter of such pompous piety? Why must I be forced to swallow such religiosity?"
But Scandalous — which features a fine cast led by stage veteran Carolee Carmello and vigorously directed by David Armstrong — has many lighter, brighter moments, as well as something rarer in contemporary musicals: the courage of its sincerity. Gifford and co-composers David Pomeranz and David Friedman have crafted a two-hour-plus journey that neither wallows in its self-importance nor looks down its nose at the quaint folks it chronicles.
Instead, Scandalous's creators invite us to laugh and sigh with, and marvel at, this entertaining cast of characters assembled by history — with some creative license, of course. Gifford doesn't explore potential conflicts between 's McPherson's conservative beliefs (which aren't addressed in detail) and proto-feminist stance; and her pill-popping, powerful-but-vulnerable Aimee has aspects of a clichéd Hollywood heroine. But the part is drawn with warmth and humor, and the siren-voiced Carmello relays both qualities with irresistible dynamism.
As Aimee's loyal convert/employee/confidante Emmo Jo, Roz Ryan lends wry distinction to the stock role of the sassy, wise African-American cohort. Other actors juggle parts, with the excellent George Hearn doubling as Aimee's patient dad and a sexist rival preacher, and Edward Watts playing both Aimee's adored first husband (who dies from malaria) and a caddish performer who tries to worm his way into her heart.
Watts' second character turns up in a series of lavish, vibrant, funny Biblical skits that send up McPherson's church shtick without mocking the faith behind it, or the faithful. That's not an easy balance to strike, and Scandalous deserves credit for its mix of unabashed razzle-dazzle, gentle irreverence and genuine heart.
Picking up where "Leap of Faith" left off, "Scandalous" is another big-budget, evangelist-with-feet-of-clay tale from the hinterlands, and despite various prior incarnations, it looks woefully out of place on a Broadway stage. Thesp Carolee Carmello ("Parade") does everything she can to breathe life into this bio-musical of forgotten celeb Aimee Semple McPherson, aka Sister Aimee, but no amount of proselytizing is likely to convert Gothamites. The composer, lyricist, librettist, director, choreographer and producers are all Broadway first-timers; so much for beginner's luck.
Show, with book and lyrics by TV hostess and media personality Kathie Lee Gifford, preemed (as "Saving Aimee") at the White Plains Performing Arts Center in 2005 before moving on to an Eric Schaefer-directed version at Signature in Arlington, Va., in 2007; the present version originated at Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theater last October, with that house's artistic director, David Armstrong, taking over the reins here.
One of the show's co-producers is the Foursquare Foundation, which was founded by McPherson and honors her memory, yet had no creative input; that might explain why she's portrayed here as a cynical, money-grubbing, child-neglecting, pill-popping adulteress. To its credit, "Scandalous" doesn't try to whitewash its heroine's life. It even seems to admit that when McPherson was purportedly kidnapped for five weeks in 1926, she was probably shacked up in a bungalow in Carmel with her married lover.
But the book never offers more than a by-the-numbers outline of the life of Sister Aimee, whose "hair is as unruly as her spirit is wild." (This from the mother, referring to her 6-week-old infant.) Gifford, who is credited with additional music along with the book and lyrics, does not impress in her several capacities. Her lyrics are filled with rhymes like "changing world"/"ever-rearranging world" and "pompous piety"/"religiosity." Facile sentiments abound, such as "I have a fire, it burns deep within, whether I am inspired or mired in sin."
Gifford also includes a couple of unexpectedly raunchy scenes that merely seem out of place. The whole affair is synthetic and simplistic: The songs, from pop composer David Pomeranz and conductor/arranger David Friedman ("Beauty and the Beast"), move the story along from point to point, but without any sense of purpose. There's a wide range of styles, at least, with one jazzy duet for Aimee's suitors, "It's Just You," providing momentary interest. The biblical vignette songs in the second act, however, border on embarrassing.
Armstrong's direction is pageant-like and aimless, and sabotaged by designer Walt Spangler's scenery: The opening number reveals a massive tabernacle, with a central podium flanked on each side by 12 massive steps. Those 24 steps remain stranded onstage throughout the evening, drastically restricting the playing area. Choreographer Lorin Latarro seems to be mostly filling space.
Carmello has been with the show since White Plains, but she continues to face an uphill battle; she's hard-working and the resultant performance is admirable, but the material doesn't allow the actress or "Scandalous" to be convincing. Carmello's co-star here is George Hearn, who has little to do but bluster as a power-hungry pastor with a compromised past.
Candy Buckley sings and frowns as Aimee's harsh mother, while Roz Ryan plays the role of the baddest madam in Kansas City, who sings a raunchy sex song and then immediately transforms herself into Aimee's biggest acolyte and protectoress. Ryan gets what are pretty much the only hearty laughs of the evening, suggesting she rewrote her lines herself.