SCANDALOUS: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson.
nytheatre.com review by Melanie N. Lee
November 21, 2012
Exploring Christian themes on the "worldly" Broadway stage comes with social and political landmines. There's the tug-of-war of entertainment versus evangelizing, full exposure versus sacrosanct discretion, innovation versus tradition. There's the ingrained belief that anything Christian must be sappy or reactionary, or that anything bold and "down and dirty" can't be Christian.
I dare say that Aimee Semple McPherson, the subject of the Broadway musical Scandalous, must have faced those landmines herself. Watching Scandalous with my sister, I found myself mentally shifting among "musical play", "Broadway", and "Christian theater". On the whole, I enjoyed this work, with its engaging story, powerful performances, and sumptuous visuals. I must admit that as a regular viewer of Today with Kathie Lee and Hoda, I've been primed to hope for this work's success.
Directed by David Armstrong, Scandalous: the Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson unfolds the story of the early 20th-century lady evangelist. Born in Canada in 1890 to a stern Salvation Army mother and an easygoing farmer father, the rambunctious, headstrong teenager Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy longs to act on stage. Questioning faith and bristling against religious rules, she attends a revival meeting headed by Pentecostal preacher Robert Semple. Hearing that faith is about relationship and not rules, Aimee falls in love with God--and with Robert. She marries and travels with him as a missionary, but soon finds herself widowed and pregnant. Furious at God, she tears up her Bible and falls into depression. To provide for her daughter, she adheres to convention, marrying Harold McPherson and bearing their son.
Soon, however, Aimee heeds the call of God, and the fire within her leads her to seek souls in "unladylike" places like bars and brothels. Eventually landing in Hollywood, she spreads the Gospel with spectacular glitzy shows. But she works herself so hard, and is so susceptible to potential lovers, that her closest associates wonder, "Does she have the heart for the hurting or the hots for fame?" Her five-week disappearance, and subsequent trial for perjury, tarnish her golden image.
With a powerful voice and commanding presence, Carolee Carmello shines--rather, starbursts--in the lead role, excellently portraying Aimee from 17 to 53. Candy Buckley does a great job as the strict yet caring mother Minnie Kennedy, and Roz Ryan is tough, tender, and funny as Aimee's no-nonsense assistant Emma Jo Schaeffer, formerly Madam Mama of the brothel. (Scandalous takes liberties here: Schaeffer was actually a prim white woman, not an earthy African-American, according to PBS' Theatre Talk.)
My sister noticed before I did that vivacious preacher Robert Semple and Mr. America/Ken-doll-type spectacle idol David Hutton are played by the same actor, Edward Watts. Watts displays a lovely voice and engaging manner as Robert, and his David is appropriately manipulative and self-absorbed. Tony-winning actor George Hearn also pulls double-duty as Aimee's understanding father James Kennedy and as conventional preacher Brother Bob who lambastes Aimee's Hollywood hijinks. Neither is a starmaking role; Hearn's James is sweetly comfortable, but his Brother Bob could've used a little more oomph. Yet another male, Andrew Samonsky, is barely seen as Harold McPherson, but aptly plays the businesslike Kenneth Ormiston, who seduces Aimee into the world of radio, and perhaps into more.
The period costumes by Gregory A. Poplyk are gorgeous, from Aimee's dazzling preaching gown to Adam and Eve's scanty leaves to the crowd's street clothes, as are Walt Spangler's scenic design, from the churchy white pillars and stairs to a Canadian wheat field to the Garden of Eden's giant tree and giant talking snake. Choreography by Lorin Latarro ranges from serviceable to lively.
On the whole, bookwriter Kathie Lee Gifford constructs and unfolds this intriguing story well, evoking many laughs, although the story lags, surprisingly, during Aimee's notorious five-week disappearance in Act II. As a lyricist, Gifford creates some ear-pleasing internal rhymes, but some of her outer rhymes clunk with predictability. To her credit, Gifford gets cutely "down-and-dirty" when drunken Dublin men sing, "Hey, little lassie/Come show me your assie", or when Madam Mama almost rhymes "luck" with--well, you know.
The music by Gifford, David Pomeranz and David Friedman (and McPherson herself) join the lyrics to create songs that serve the story but don't stand out. Some highlights--mid-lights?--include the characters Kenneth and David each wooing Aimee in "It's Just You", and the Biblical spectacles "Adam and Eve", "Samson and Delilah", and "Moses and Pharaoh".
Scandalous tackles some worthy subjects: a woman's place in the world and in church; medium versus message; whether obeying God can mean breaking convention rather than following it. You'll probably leave the theater remembering Aimee and forgetting the tunes.