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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

Saving Aimee

Also see Susan's review of The Director: The Third Act of Elia Kazan

Saving Aimee
Carolee Carmello
While Saving Aimee, the new musical receiving its premiere production at Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, has its ups and downs, Carolee Carmello's central performance is a thorough triumph. As Aimee Semple McPherson, the flamboyant and notorious evangelist of the early 20th century, Carmello has to command the stage almost continuously, and she does it with a galvanizing stage presence and glorious voice.

The fact-based story recounted by Kathie Lee Gifford (book and lyrics) and David Pomeranz and David Friedman (music) is undeniably dramatic, but the treatment does not always live up to the material. Some of the songs are less than integral to the plot, and not all of the characters make a lot of sense in context. Still, Eric Schaeffer's direction is never less than interesting, and Christopher d'Amboise has created spirited and energetic choreography.

The action begins with Aimee at age 17, struggling with her sternly religious parents (Florence Lacey, Ed Dixon) and her dream of performing on stage. When she discovers the drama of a Pentecostal tent meeting led by charismatic preacher Robert Semple (Steve Wilson), Aimee sets off to find her destiny, but she has to face a number of obstacles before a mysterious force whether religious inspiration or incipient mental illness propels her into a career as a pioneering religious leader and broadcaster.

The story shifts in and out of time, held together with a framework of scenes from Aimee's 1926 trial for perjury following her unexplained absence was she really kidnapped, or is she lying? Gifford is trying to build tension with this device, but it isn't necessary; Aimee is a fascinating enough person that the audience doesn't need to follow the hints of what is to come.

Carmello portrays Aimee with a spine of steel and a relentless drive for success, but still vulnerable to the uncertainties of love and sex. She ably conveys Aimee's resolve, determination, and occasional fear through her vividly expressive eyes and upright posture. Interestingly, costume designer Anne Kennedy clothes her in white throughout, whether a simple dress or the sparkling vestments of her temple in Hollywood.

The other characters are drawn more broadly. E. Faye Butler, always an asset with her clarion voice, here has the unlikely role of a bordello madam who gives up her lavish life to join Aimee's ministry. Wilson and Adam Monley are agreeable as the men in Aimee's life, while Dixon has one warm-hearted character, Aimee's father, and one cartoonish one, a bloviating minister who decries Aimee as "a P.T. Barnum of the pulpit" and "a demon in a dress."

Walt Spangler's scenic design is functional but not very attractive: a scaffolding of unfinished boards, two open-backed staircases, and sliding panels. Michael Clark's projections make the settings more literal with images of crowds and architectural details, but also distract with slogans and Biblical quotes that refer to specific scenes.

Signature Theatre
Saving Aimee
April 10th May 13th
Book and lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford
Music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman
Asa Keyes: Andrew Long
Aimee Semple McPherson: Carolee Carmello
Emma Jo Schaeffer: E. Faye Butler
Minnie Kennedy: Florence Lacey
James Kennedy/Brother Bob: Ed Dixon
Robert Semple/David Hutton: Steve Wilson
Dr. Samuels/Judge: Harry A. Winter
Harold (Mac) McPherson/Kenneth: Adam Monley
Rolf: Michael Bannigan
Roberta: Corrieanne Stein
Ensemble: Doug Bowles, Priscilla Cuellar, James Gardiner, Evan Hoffmann, Jennifer Irons, Carrie A. Johnson, Diego Prieto, Tammy Roberts, Margo Seibert, Harry A. Winter
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Choreography by Christopher d'Amboise
Music direction by Michael Rice
2800 S. Stafford St.
Arlington, VA 22206
Ticket Information: 703-820-9771 or 1-800-955-5566 or www.signature-theatre.org


Photo: Scott Suchman


-- Susan Berlin


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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