At the end of “Scandalous,” the gossip columnist Louella Parsons asks: “Was she a true woman of God? Or just one hell of a woman?” She is talking about colorful radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson – world-famous in the 1920’s and 1930’s, thrice-married, criminally indicted, and the subject of the musical that has now opened on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theater.
The audience is likely to ask some other questions:
Why was this woman so popular – and why, although she’s been dead almost 70 years, is her story now being resurrected in song and dance?
When the radio station McPherson founded was sold in 2003 for $250 million, as we’re told in a coda in the show, who got the money? (And did any of it make its way to this production?)
How come, if television host Kathie Lee Gifford spent some 13 years writing this musical, it still feels like a work in progress?
There is nothing scandalously wrong with “Scandalous.” It is in many ways a conventional big Broadway musical, an elaborate entertainment with imposing if largely unsurprising sets by Wolf Spangler, rousing numbers with familiar choreography by Lorin Latarro, and music by David Pomeranz, David Friedman and Gifford that is often pleasing if never groundbreaking. Gifford’s lyrics contain some wit and some heart. Star Carolee Carmello gets a rigorous workout, and gives a vigorous performance, backed by a competent cast of almost two dozen, several of whom also stand out. But the show is a sprawling, somewhat muddled epic, when a more focused chamber piece might have been more effective.
It’s called “Scandalous,” and it begins with characters whom we will see more of later (her mother, Charlie Chaplin, the district attorney, etc.) offering brief opinions about her guilt or innocence in a scandal not yet explained, a kidnapping that most believe she faked. “Brothers and Sisters, devoted friends here at Angelus Temple,” Sister Aimee declaims from the apex of her extravagant white pulpit, which looks like something from a Busby Berkeley or Vincente Minnelli movie musical ( “Stairway to Heaven?”) “Tomorrow we will learn if I am to continue in God’s work or be led away in chains to a prison cell.” Then she segues from a sermon into a barn-raising gospel number, “Stand Up.”
Yet the scandal teased so heavily in the opening takes up only the last 20 minutes of this two and a half hour show. The subtitle of “Scandalous” is a more accurate description of it: “The life and trials of Aimee Semple McPherson.”
That life is told in such detail that it becomes something of a trial itself. She was born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy on a Canadian farm (cue a bucolic backdrop that looks like something out of “Oklahoma,” all sunset and wheat fields.) Her father (George Hearn, largely wasted) is a nice sweet farmer, but her mother (Candy Buckley, better-used) is fanatically religious; we first see them arguing over Shakespeare, whom Mama Minnie calls “a worldly piece of trash.” Aimee has far more interest in theater than religion, until she meets and marries a charming Irish faith-healing preacher Robert Semple (Edward Watts), against the wishes of her mother. But Semple dies, while the couple is on a mission abroad, and then Aimee, who was pregnant with their child, meets and marries Harold McPherson, an accountant, with whom she has a second child, but then leaves him when she hears the voice of God tell her to go preach. Even an accountant doesn’t deserve the short-shrift that Harold gets in “Scandalous,” but neither is the death of her beloved first husband handled with the moment that you would think it deserves. It is followed, though, with a powerful song, “How Could You?” in which Aimee lashes out at God.
All of this takes up much of the first act, and is only of mild interest; a no-nonsense dramaturg might have demanded that most of it be cut. Aimee spends too much time narrating her life in this musical, instead of just living it, but there is, after all, a lot to cover: Kathie Lee Gifford is like a diligent student eager to pack in all she’s learned about her subject. (Even so, the story more or less ends 18 years before her death; a coda gathers the cast together again to give us a quick outline of her extraordinary activities over those two decades — “…during World War II she sold more War Bonds than any movie star..” — and beyond — “Angelus Temple, now called The Dream Center, is still thriving.”)
It is only when we get to Sister Aimee’s career as preacher that “Scandalous” gets some juice. She reaches out to people in all sorts of ways – we see her on a streetcorner, in a boxing ring, in a men’s bar barred to women, in a bordello. She takes advantage like no preacher before her of modern means of communication: She never misses a chance to give a reporter a quote, and becomes a pioneer in radio preaching. But it’s her theatrical church services, inspired by silent films, that offer the best moments in “Scandalous.” Three scenes re-enact stories from the Bible:
Adam and Eve
Samson and Delilah
All three employ hilarious Hollywood glitz and sexy, half-clad performers, most notably the beefcake cad who becomes her third husband, David Hutton (played by Edward Watts, impressively transformed from his earlier role as Aimee’s first husband.)
These Biblical tableaux are short, enjoyable kitsch, sandwiched in between the long serious melodramas of her early life beforehand and the obligatory fall and redemption afterward. But how much of these reenactments were Sister Aimee’s kitsch, and how much “Scandalous” director David Armstrong’s? We know from published biographies of her that she turned her church services into a kind of religious theater, but did they really show off so much skin?
It is frankly hard to trust this show. The problem is in part that Gifford, again the earnest student, seems to want to present a balanced picture – but one that errs on the side of sympathy. Ok, yes, Sister Aimee pops too many pills, and flirts too much, and had a third marriage with a ne’er-do-well, and seems to have faked a kidnapping in order to have a dalliance with a married lover. But we don’t know that for sure, and besides, she was a woman in a man’s world, she was ahead of her time, she was fun-loving instead of boringly pious, and she was kind to black people to boot. We see her saving a whorehouse madam who becomes her secretary (the fabulous Roz Ryan); we see Aimee rejecting overtures from the Ku Klux Klan.
What we don’t see in the musical is that she preached against evolution, volubly supporting William Jennings Bryan in the Scopes trial. We also don’t hear anything close to what she told the New Republic in 1926, that she believed in “a literal Devil presiding over a literal hell, inhabited by card-players, dance-hall frequenters, drunkards, dope-peddlers, wicked women.” (Dance-hall frequenters? Isn’t that….us?)
We’ve seen something close to “Scandalous” quite recently on Broadway – last season’s “Leap of Faith.” By most measures (including my own), that Alan Mencken musical was a bomb. The sets in “Scandalous” are better; the music’s not as good. But more importantly, “Leap of Faith,” based loosely on the true story of a televangelist, had the theatrical advantage of a clear point of view: The preacher was an outright conman, albeit one who comes to see the error of his ways. It also had a single, upfront agenda, which was to entertain.
One of the producers of “Scandalous” is the Foursquare Foundation. McPherson founded the Foursquare Church, officially named the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel,
which still exists (according to its website) “from Alabama to Zimbabwe.” The foundation’s mission, its Playbill bio informs us, “coincides with the passion of Aimee Semple McPherson and continues to carry on her legacy of sharing God’s love to people all over the world.” Is that indeed her legacy? And is that the mission of “Scandalous” as well?
At the Neil Simon Theater
Book and lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford Music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman
Directed by David Armstrong, choreographed by Lorin Latarro,
Scenic design by Walt Spangler, costume
design by Gregory A. Poplyk , lighting design by Natasha
Katz, sound design by Ken Travis, and orchestrations by
Cast: Carolee Carmello (Sister Aimee) George
Hearn (James Kennedy/Brother Bob) Candy
Buckley (Minnie Kennedy), Edward Watts (Robert
Semple/David Hutton), Roz Ryan (Emma Jo Schaeffer) and Andrew
Samonsky (Harold McPherson/Kenneth Ormiston)
.Nick Cartell, Joseph Dellger, Erica Dorfler,
Carlos L. Encinias, Hannah Florence, Corey Greenan, Benjamin Howes, Karen Hyland,
Elizabeth Ward Land, Alison Luff, Jesse Nager, Sam Strasfeld, Betsy Struxness, Billie
Wildrick, Dan’yelle Williamson and Matt Wolfe.
Produced by Betsy and Dick DeVos, Foursquare Foundation, Cantinas Ranch Foundation and The Stand Up Group; Produced in association with The 5th Avenue Theatre
Running time: Two and a half hours, including a 15-minute intermission.
Tickets: $57.00- $127.00
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