In pre-TV America, Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy Semple McPherson Hutton was one of the most renowned (and “notorious”) women of the first half of the 20th Century. She was a world-famous evangelist, a trail-blazing radio broadcaster, a pioneer prescription drug addict, and an alleged adulterer. But unlike her media-mogul successors such as Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Ted Haggard, Saving Aimee portrays McPherson as refreshingly free of condescension, demagoguery and vitriol, and with an abundant compassion for the downtrodden. Can I get an Amen!
Eric Shaeffer again teams with Kathie Lee Gifford (Putting It Together on Broadway and Off-Broadway’s Under the Bridge) for this world premiere musical. The cast features a high-powered female trio: Carolee Carmello, Florence Lacy, and E. Faye Butler (Priscilla Cuellar, Butler’s understudy, went on the performance I saw).
Kathie Lee Gifford clearly has researched her subject exhaustively. She puts her cradle to grave knowledge of Aimee on display exhaustingly, fully prepared should the American Historical Review send a drama critic. [Regarding her use of research materials, I did find it telling that, in a “Special Thanks” program insert, Gifford expresses gratitude to a McPherson biographer “for his scholarly, but objective account.” Hmm.“ Scholarly, but objective.” Hmm. What might this signify for her interpretation of primary and secondary sources on her subject?]
Anyway, while it would be patently absurd for a show about McPherson not to convey her spiritual journey and to feature her “witness for Christ” as delivered both intimately and writ large professionally, suffice it to say that too frequent “Calls to Jesus” can rack up some steep roving charges in a musical. Gifford hides none of McPherson’s flaws and insecurities, existential and otherwise, to be sure; this is by no means a whitewash. But the religiosity, from heartfelt to stereotypical, requires a defter hand to ultimately avoid being cloying. Also, by providing a chronology of McPherson’s life in the program, Gifford herself encourages second-guessing regarding what she chose to include or exclude.
Gifford and her composers (Pomeranz and Friedman) do provide a few exciting and emotionally satisfying moments to be sure, but also too many scenes that are didactic, redundant, or overburdened with lengthy exposition (remember Urinetown’s Officer Lockstock on “too much exposition”). The mostly chronological storytelling is quite unfortunate considering the riveting first scene which juxtaposes “Stand Up!,” a rousing gospel number showing McPherson at the pinnacle of her career in peak performance, with the 1926 grand jury investigation of her alleged abduction and her possibly intimate relationship with her married radio producer. Wow! It is very compelling. Had Gifford focused the majority of the show’s book on the six months from McPherson’s alleged abduction to the dismissal of the grand jury (which brought no criminal charges), Saving Aimee might have soared. This first scene boldly establishes many interesting themes (family relationships, gender roles, religiosity/spirituality, celebrity, mental stability, etc.). Gifford opted for a linear treatment (with grand jury scenes interposed for commentary) rather than focusing on one crucial time period (with flashbacks and flash-forwards interspersed for insight). The linear, historical approach doesn’t seem to leave sufficient room for complex character development.
Several songs are pleasant: “He Will Be My Home,” ‘I Will Love You That Way,” and “The Silent, Sorrowful Shadows.” The latter is a fitting showcase for Carolee Carmello’s beautiful voice and dramatic gifts (which earned her a Best Actress Tony nomination for Parade).
Florence Lacy (as Aimee’s mother, Minnie), as with many of the cast, is given a mostly one-dimensional role. Lacy’s earliest scene (of Minnie dedicating her infant daughter to the Lord’s work) and her first song, “For Such a Time as This,” could easily be cut without harm to the story. Her title song, “Saving Aimee,” is burdened with a painfully awkward chorus, rhyming “saving” with “misbehaving,” which increasingly grates. The song reminded me of the Act I finale song, “Astonishing,” from the musical Little Women, which made audiences cringe, it was so astonishingly off-kilter.
Similarly, the shipboard sequence where Aimee and first husband, Robert Semple, make their way from Europe to the mission field in China (including the Irish ditty, “That Sweet Lassie from Cork”) is unnecessary and quickly grows tiresome.
There are three segments suggesting the short Bible Story pageants staged by Aimee in the Angelus Temple. These scenes attempt none of the professionalism and dazzle hers were reputed to display and probably should have been more cleverly combined or deleted altogether. There are precious few moments of humor in the show, unless they were beyond my ken, and in one attempt Pharaoh says to Moses, “Have it YAHWEH.” In another scene, Aimee’s personal assistant, Emma Jo (aka Madam Mama, a former working girl) says of a rival preacher, “He pious-es me off!”. If anachronistic jokes can not be resisted, better they allude to the past than the future. Also in the Bible Stories sequence, Moses waves about a large, plague-begotten frog for comic effect. Another show to visit Washington that stalled on its way to Broadway, Whistle Down the Wind, featured a Holy Roller snake-handling scene. Squirmy rubber creatures featured in musical theatre: a bad sign.
Unfortunately unlike other shows with a religious angle (Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, or even Guys and Dolls), Saving Aimee has more in common with Whistle or the even more notorious, Carrie: The Musical (if you recall, Margaret White, Carrie’s mother, had her own special religious sentiments). At least the latter show produced the gorgeous song, “Unsuspecting Hearts.”
The scenic design (Walt Spangler), lighting (Chris Lee), and projection design (Michael Clark) all effectively evoke the period, complete with a colorful tent-raising scene.
Several observers of the American theatre scene have remarked on the tendency of today’s audiences to give any performance a standing ovation. Here we have the irony that opening song “Stand Up!” serves as the closing encore.
(Running time: 2:50) Saving Aimee continues until May 13 at Signature Theatre, 2800 S. Stafford Street, Arlington, VA. Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 pm, Thursdays – Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 7 pm, with 2 pm matinees Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets: $45 – $63. Available online or at the Signature box office.