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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Saving Aimee at the 5th Avenue Theatre

Saving Aimee
Judy Kaye, Carolee Carmello and Roz Ryan
After seeing her all-stops-out powerful performance as Aimee Semple McPherson in the new 5th Avenue musical Saving Aimee (which has set its sights on Broadway) there is nothing to do short of throwing bouquets at Carolee Carmello for her knockout, tour-de force of a performance. Would that the musical itself inspired such a desire. Creators Kathy Lee Gifford (book, lyrics and additional music), David Pomeranz and David Friedman (music) have delivered a show that contains many of the details of Aimee's life and rise to fame, but essentially skims through them, and in an overly reverential fashion to boot. The songs are socked across by Carmello and a talented, stalwart cast, but there are no real standouts in the score. David Armstrong's direction keeps the show moving briskly along, but he hasn't stylistically found a sure footing with it, as the show reminds us here of Gypsy, there of Barnum, and strongly in act two with its dancing court reporters, ala Chicago.

The impossible task the creators set up for themselves is to try to tell, basically, Sister Aimee's whole life story from her unhappy childhood with a father gone too soon to a mother who never goes away, through her rise to fame and unhappy romances, to her disappearance and subsequent court trial, to her life in the aftermath of being exonerated. The tireless Carmello sings three times as many songs as she should be asked to and, regardless of how she does by them (and she is sensational); Gifford, Pomeranz and Friedman deserve to be chastised for asking her to carry a show that would have worn down Merman. Then there is the puzzling fact that musical theatre great Judy Kaye as Aimee's mother doesn't get a featured solo, or even a great duet, to showcase her outstanding vocal abilities, though she gives her considerable all in her dramatic scenes. As Emma Jo, a Kansas City whorehouse brothel Madam who becomes a key support figure to Aimee, the electric Roz Ryan has one of the show's liveliest numbers with her "girls", and beefs up the show's comic quotient whenever called upon to.

The men take a back seat in the story, but Armstrong has smartly cast actors who keep them from being stick figures. Brandon O'Neill shiningly plays a soft-spoken, nice guy of a second husband to Aimee, and then smoothly plays the shady show-biz character she may have taken for a lover, in act two. Ed Watts similarly is a beacon of goodness as the beloved first husband Aimee loses to illness, and then the venal, viper of a wannabe Hollywood star who fleeting weds Aimee before a scandal quickly tears them apart. Besides Carmello, the most enjoyable performer in the show could well be Ed Dixon, touching as Aimee's beloved father, and then turning into Brother Bob, a boisterous, Southern fried rival evangelist, with naughty little secrets. And, with very slim pickings offered to him in the script, the redoubtable Charles Leggett does a rock-solid turn as prosecutor Asa Keyes. The supporting ensemble (filled out with such Seattle principal players as Billie Wildrick and Richard Gray) twinkle like diamonds in the service of this zircon of a show.

Walt Spangler's set design with its matching stairways to the pulpit from which Aimee preaches is grandly and appropriately overdone. The show's musical direction by veteran Joel Fram, is up to his high standards, making every number shine brighter than the one before. The cast and production values are of a high order, yet, as written by the enterprising Gifford and collaborators, Saving Aimee doesn't seem to have what it would take to move it to the promised land of Broadway. But Carolee Carmello? You can bet she'll be back on the Great White Way in a stronger show. That's easy to have faith in.

Saving Aimee runs through October 29 at the 5th Avenue Theatre. For tickets or information contact the 5th Avenue box office at 206-625-1900 or visit them online at www.5thavenue.org.


Photo: Chris Bennion



- David Edward Hughes



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