Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 15, 2012
Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson Book, lyrics & additional music by Kathie Lee Gifford. Music by David Pomerantz and David Friedman. Directed by David Armstrong. Choreography by Lorin Latarro. Music direction & vocal arrangements by Joel Fram. Scenic design by Walt Spangler. Costume design by Gregory A. Poplyk. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Ken Travis. Hair design by Paul Huntley Enterprises, Inc. Orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin. Cast: Carolee Carmello, Candy Buckley, Edward Watts, Roz Ryan, Andrew Samonsky, Nick Cartell, Joseph Dellger, Erica Dorfler, Carlos L. Encinias, Hannah Florence, Corey Greenan, Benjamin Howes, Karen Hyland, Elizabeth Ward Land, Alison Luff, Jess Nager, Sam Strasfeld, Betsy Struxness, Billie Wildrick, Dan’yelle Williamson, Matt Wolfe and George Hearn.
Gifted as an actress and even better as a belter, Carmello could hardly have begged for a more doting showcase vehicle for her considerable talents than this one about 20th-century evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944). Kathie Lee Gifford (book, lyrics, and additional music) and David Pomeranz and David Friedman (music) have provided Carmello with countless opportunities to flaunt her golden pipes, embody bone-deep glamor, and attract the audience with the kind of comforting embrace modern-day headliners are so seldom allowed to deploy.
This show's depiction of McPherson demands that she not only preach the gospel (or a reasonable, silver-inked facsimile thereof) from New York streets and a Los Angeles megachurch, but also that she romance several different men, experience heartbreak in multiple flavors, and age from 17 to about 40. Carmello sails through all this, and quite a bit more, with such ease that you can't help but be positive she does it 20 times before breakfast every morning, and sings an astonishing amount of vocally taxing material even though she spends all but a few scant minutes onstage, trying to win us over to her cause.
That she comes within millimeters of succeeding is still more impressive given the obstacles she's up against. For what the writers and director David Armstrong foist upon her — and by extension us — is enough to propel the most devout believer into a spiritual crisis. It's tough to remember a more haphazard collection of elements that have called themselves a Broadway musical recently. (Even In My Life is stretching it.) Everyone seems to have been more interested in Carmello than in Semple McPherson, and thus have barely even bothered to tell her story.
What's proposed at the outset is a battle of wills between Aimee and her mother, Minnie (Candy Buckley), an authoritarian Christian who doesn't want her daughter to pursue the theatre. (Aimee's dad, played by George Hearn, is more accommodating.) Aimee blends her interests when she witnesses the touring Pentecostal "holy rollers" show of Robert Semple (Edward Watts), and is instantly smitten with him as both prophet and performer. This would seem to set up a reasonable conflict that could then be used for dissecting the rest of this complicated woman's life.
But two scenes later, during a trip to spread the Good News to China, Robert is dead, Aimee officially finds God during a near-death experience, and any layerings or complexities have been abandoned. In short order, Aimee has begun her traveling ministry (with her mother in tow, for no well-defined reason), converts to her cause a madam named Emma with the requisite heart of gold (Roz Ryan), marries Harold McPherson (who, in a triumph of libretto artistry, speaks not a single word), and then beds both the chiseled star of her Hollywood pageant (Watts again) and the radio engineer who brings her word to the masses (Andrew Samonsky), all while fighting the seething pastor Brother Bob (Hearn once more) who disapproves of her methods.
Once Aimee escapes her teenage years, and Carmello moves beyond one of the very best portrayals of an adolescent I've seen a middle-aged adult give (unblemished innocence affects how she speaks, stands, and walks), everything about Scandalous fails to fire.
Carmello's stunning singing, at once brassy and hypnotic and warm, cannot compensate for the utter lack of memorable music, even among the faux-energetic gospel romps, or a halfway-witty lyric, anywhere in the bulging song stack — a big problem for a musical promoting the importance show biz's value as a medium of communication. The jokes are lame, yes ("I swear some of these Christians are so pious, they just pious me off!"), but the story is impossible to follow, with no character other than Aimee given so much as three minutes of close attention. And she's not immune to sloppy treatment: Her conversion occurs as part of a monologue rather than a song, for example, and a major second-act development that thrusts Aimee into the mercy of the legal system is conducted almost entirely offstage and explained only lazily in dialogue.
Worse, though, is the evening's profound cynicism. Gifford has set up Aimee as the ultimate maybe–con artist, and you're obviously always supposed to be questioning her motives. But you never see the "good" side of Aimee, the woman who supposedly healed and uplifted people besides Emma — the second act is more about finding new excuses for Watts to appear shirtless and often pantsless (as Adam, Samson, and the Pharaoh of Egypt!) than it does stripping Aimee down to her own emotional essentials. Our never knowing or caring who she is unsurprisingly proves a devastating blow to a show about her.
Nothing is helped by Armstrong's half-hearted direction; Walt Spangler's atrocious set design, an ugly blue and white stairway to heaven that lumbers behind every scene (is it too much to ask that it occasionally rolls offstage if the scene doesn't demand its presence?); Gregory A. Poplyk's generic-disposable vestment-type costumes; or Lorin Latarro's by-the-book choreography. And though Hearn's turns are professional (he only sings a few lines), Watts and Samonsky turn out some ear-catching vocals, and Ryan's gameness and Buckley's intensity are admirable, there's nothing here that any actor or singer can redeem.
That's even true of whoever is playing Aimee, though she can make for other deficiencies with volume and charm, two qualities Carmello has the keep from being overcome by the show lurching around her. This has been a rough year for shows about itinerant preachers, as Leap of Faith proved last spring, but based on how high Carmello elevates Aimee beyond what's on the page, no one need fear for her career. Scandalous itself, however, looks well beyond saving.