Carolee Carmello gets the star treatment she deserves in an underwhelming new musical
Life stories are a tricky business. Every individual weathers enough ups and downs to have their own experience merit the telling – but that doesn’t mean that all lives translate to cogent dramatic arcs. Aimee Semple McPherson, however, one of the more colorful and dynamic personalities to emerge from the early twentieth century, should evade that pitfall. And yet the new musical, Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson, can’t seem to do its subject justice.
Linear but unfocused, Scandalous is the pet project of talk show personality Kathie Lee Gifford, who purportedly spent nearly a decade getting this show to the Great White Way, and wrote the show’s book and lyrics in addition to contributing music to David Pomeranz’s and David Friedman’s serviceable score. Perhaps Gifford’s adoration of McPherson, an evangelist who founded California’s Foursquare Church and became an early media impresario, blinded her to her heroine’s weak spots. Or Foursquare’s involvement as producer ridded the show of any objectivity. Either way, what should be a warts-and-all bio-musical ultimately airbrushes away any blemishes on its titular subject.
Carolee Carmello, the gutsy and glamorous Broadway belter, takes on McPherson, narrating her life story from its early beginnings as a Canadian teenager all the way through her polarizing stature as a pill-popping diva. But Gifford, making good on the adage that “the devil is in the details,” leaves too many crucial details out to keep McPherson looking like an angel. Her husbands disappear in brackets: She falls in love with Robert Semple (Edward Watts) after catching his Pentecostal “holy rollers” tour, but after a trip to China, Robert dies of malaria. A second marriage to accountant Harold McPherson (Andrew Samonsky) ends in divorce; though the two were married for nearly a decade, the man merits not one scene or line of dialogue.
Watts and Samonsky return for the show’s second act, in which McPherson’s traveling ministry has transported her to the belly of the beast. A natural for Hollywood, she ended up in Echo Park, where she launched her Angelus Temple and wed one of her choir-men, David Hutton (Watts again, making Hutton out to be far more of a model than the real version ever was). It’s also where she ran off with radio technician Kenneth Ormiston (also Samonsky). This is a cloudy period in history, as McPherson claimed to have been abducted in a story riddled with holes. Ultimately, she and her mother, Minnie (an imperious Candy Buckley) were charged with obstruction of justice in 1926 for her odd disappearance. It’s this trial that lends itself the show’s title and Gifford’s framing device, but Scandalous offers no enlightenment on what really happened.
Carmello does everything right – she ages believably from teenage to middle age, she belts McPherson’s bombastic but generic-sounding numbers to the high heavens, she even manages to sell her character’s “hey where did that come from?” addiction to barbiturates. But this superb, commanding talent can only ace what she has to work with, and the one thing Gifford hasn’t provided for Scandalous is a soul. We rarely feel that religion ever matters to her, and her demons are merely name-checked, not explored. And we never see how she became the titanic presence she did. Why was she able to hold sway over such a congregation? (One thing they do give her? A fun ally in Roz Ryan’s delicious turn as madam Emma Jo Schaeffer.) Armstrong doesn’t do much to shape the proceedings either; the show hurtles through McPherson’s life, Wikipedia-style, though it shoves all the juicy stuff under the rug – and offstage. Scandalous gives and takes in all the wrong places.
Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson
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