Remember ‘Saving Aimee’? It’s Scandalous on Broadway

Kathie Lee Gifford as book writer, lyricist and part time composer, has spent twelve  years creating material, polishing it, pruning it, having a look at it in two regional productions, [Signature Theatre produced it as Saving Aimee] and finally living her dream, for it did indeed open on Broadway in a full scale production, complete with a star, a large company, a top notch supporting cast, and all the trimmings. 

But there’s no getting around the fact that what’s up there on stage at the Neil Simon theatre is a 2 1/2 hour homage to a little remembered pop culture figure of the 1920s-40s who was more or less an earlier version of  Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert.

Carolee Carmello as Aimee and George Hearn as Brother Bob in Scandalous. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

Ms. Gifford has worked hard, and it shows.  She’s included a larger than life (and constant) central figure for her musical book, a girl with a tyrannical and controlling mother and a supportive but ineffectual father, who flees home at 17 hoping to find a career in theatre, but who is detoured by a chance encounter with a Pentacostal pastor named Robert Semple, who dazzles her into a born again life which leads to her own vocation.

Aimee has a way with her, and she soon learns she can pass her passion on to larger and larger congregations who continue to metastasize until they’ve earned her enough to build a temple of her own in Los Angeles which she called the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

She always loved theatre, and she made it part of her weekly events, cheaply dramatizing biblical tales, reaching out to 5,000 hysterical followers at each “performance.”  After years of success and some notoriety, she disappeared while swimming in the Pacific Ocean and was discovered a week later, claiming she’d been kidnapped and kept hostage in Mexico.  She didn’t bother to explain how she re-appeared fully clothed and in excellent health, and she managed to triumph over the many who thought she’d probably been with a lover or even worse, that she’d had an abortion. She’d have been the perfect girl to play Roxie Hart in Chicago.

Aimee is not an ideal subject for a musical biography, for she wasn’t a lot of laughs. One can see why she attracted a gifted leading lady, Carolee Carmello, to play her.  But the lovely to look at velvet soprano, who has been delivering fine work for several seasons in everything from Sister Act to Kiss Me, Kate to Parade to The Addams Family, can’t save the day.  She had smaller featured roles or was a replacement in several of her shows, and she had not yet landed that role in a new musical that delivered box office star billing. She thought she had found it in Aimee in Scandalous, but the material just isn’t there to support that.

I admire Ms. Gifford for keeping the faith, for sticking with her project until it finally had its first class chance, but Broadway is a tough nut to crack. It pits artists against the best of the past and the current crop, and Gifford doesn’t pass that test.  Her Aimee is a one dimensional girl with an obsession — and Ms. Gifford has her  joining others in narrating her own story — again and again she hits center stage in a white flowing robe to tell us what happened next.  She even lets her hair down at one point to play herself at 17.

Along the way, she is joined by the excellent George Hearn, who plays her sweet father in Act One, and a far right wing adversary in Act II. His performance as her father is so finely wrought, the audience didn’t recognize this gifted star of Sweeney Todd and La Cage Aux Folles  until his Act Two entrance as Brother Bob, looking more like himself, and at that point he got a hand on his entrance!

Aimee’s two husbands show up briefly when needed, and Edward Watts and Andrew Samonsky flesh them out as best they can.  Candy Buckley plays Aimee’s mother Minnie Kennedy and Roz Ryan morphs the same character, Emma Jo Schaffer,  from a madam loaded with bling to a moral arbiter, and does it all with great humor and warmth.

But the book is sketchy and one dimensional and the score is repetitive and uninteresting. There are over 30 numbers, and Ms. Carmello is featured in  sixteen of them. David Armstrong has staged the show slickly; it reads as sort of an inadvertent homage to Bring It On in which the lead always hits center stage, and came flying forward to the footlights to sing another rouser ending with those arms in the air, and that top register note blasting away, making lots of sound but creating no nuance, no connection.

Again, Ken Travis’ sound design does not help Ms. Carmello. The men – George Hearn, Edward Watts, Andrews Samonsky – because of the timbre of their voices – are treated more kindly, but the songs they sing – “Come Whatever May”, “He Will Be My Home” are sentimental and they lose us. Ms. Ryan’s big number, “A Girl’s Gotta Do What A Girl’s Gotta Do” is fun because she is a fine musical character actress and has great personal appeal, Her voice is closer to baritone than soprano which means that old monster mic  does little to distort her high notes, but once we’ve heard the title, we sort of tune out and spend our time just watching Ms. Ryan work us over in fine style.

It’s a great pity to give these first rate musical talents so little to work with, but it’s all just so unoriginal and forgettable. Last season’s Leap of Faith, another large musical about a male Evangelist, played superbly by Raul Esparza, was infinitely more inventive and entertaining, but it went belly up after just 19 performances.

The cast of Scandalous, Carolee Carmello, center stage (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

After two tryouts for Scandalous, one would think the message would have been  clear — this was not going to be a musical with a large fan base.  Ms. Gifford’s celebrity as a talk show host enabled her to stick with it until she found a consortium of producers, including the Foursquare Foundation, the Stand Up Group and the Cantinas Ranch Foundation, all anxious to spread the word, to continue the work Aimee Semple McPherson started 90 years ago.  It’s an expensive way to proselytize and perhaps it will inspire some.

The one set by Walt Spangler is there with us more or less all night. Looking like something Ayn Rand might have designed, the left half is all spires and towers and staircases and banners; the right half is a mirror image of the left. Bits and pieces of furniture roll in to allow us into the more intimate  scenes, but the towers  and spires, all hospital white, overwhelm the short and intimate scenes that involve Aimee’s mother, father, husbands one (Semple)  and two (McPherson)  and others whose lives touch her own.  It’s pretty to look at, but sterile and very impersonal which only makes the simplistic writing of the book and score more uninvolving.

To sum up, the best words I can muster to describe the show are “earnest and sincere.’

Scandalous is onstage at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street between Broadway & 8th Avenue, NYC.
Details and tickets

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Richard Seff, who, in his career on Broadway has been a performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stagecelebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.  Read more at RichardSeff.com

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