Aimee Semple McPherson – “Sister Aimee” – evangelist extraordinaire and media celebrity. And now the subject of a surprisingly entertaining new musical by Kathie Lee Gifford – a media celebrity herself who has impressively provided book, lyrics and some additional music for her fascinating and impressive bio-musical SCANDALOUS – with a tuneful, raise the rafters and power ballad peppered score by David Pomeranz and David Friedman now playing at the Neil Simon Theatre.
Was she a faith healer? Was she a fraud? Did she hear the voice of God calling her to spread His word worldwide or was she a pill popping, mixed up woman caught between her career as founder of the Angelus Temple and her personal life where her choice of lovers was questionable to say the least?
Whatever she was, as portrayed by the immensely gifted Carolee Carmello in a breathtaking performance, Sister Aimee is a dynamic work-a-holic – a force of nature with vocal chords made of titanium and a spirit and a fire a passion that makes the audience believe in her fully, instilling in them the desire to “Stand Up” as the first number instructs us to do as Sister Aimee is on trial for allegedly faking her own kidnapping. What a fascinating story! You can’t make things like this up. Aimee Semple McPherson was truly one of the first reality stars, like it or not.
On a majestic unit set of the Angelus Temple by Walt Spangler, Aimee begins her story in flashback and narration. Narration that we could use less of and thankfully is soon dispensed with, as we see first hand the story of her most interesting life.
Canadian. Born of a father whom she adored (George Hearn) who also portrays her nemesis Brother Bob later on and her mother Minnie (Candy Buckley) who worked for the Salvation Army drilling her daughter with The Scriptures and who later becomes her manager.
But Aimee wanted to be an actress. And so we see the development of the woman who would bring thousands to her Tent Shows combining the Bible with MGM production like numbers (Adam and Eve, Samson and Moses) providing laughter and songs while slipping in the Gospel with eye popping, sparkling costumes by Gregory A. Poplyk with her founding of the Foursquare Gospel Church in 1920’s Los Angeles.
Dressed in denim and then white silk, Carolee Carmello meets the men in her life. First an Irish Pentecostal minister Robert Semple (Edward Watts with a gorgeous voice that matches his looks) and are off to China where he dies of malaria. Undeterred she meets an accountant Harold McPherson (Andrew Samonsky). He is only seen briefly and has nothing to say. Both men thankfully reappear as other intriguing characters. Both men are terrific sharing an Act II duet “It’s Just You” which is delightful.
Mr. Watts becomes the physically fit David Hutton who is after Aimee for various reasons. Mr. Samonsky – a skillful actor and wonderful singer becomes Kenneth Ormiston who creates a radio program for her and pursues her for various reasons.
On her way to fame and fortune she meets the owner of a brothel Emma Jo (a spunky Roz Ryan) who becomes her loyal and very honest assistant and confidante.
If in Act I we see the rise of Aimee, Act II shows her success (the wonderful “Hollywood Aimee” sung by a group of reporters) and the animosity towards her that will attempt to topple her from her tower – resulting in her “eleven o’clock number” – “What Does It Profit?” which is a standout, crowning glory success for Ms. Carmello. In fact her entire performance is.
I went into SCANDALOUS a non-believer but surprisingly Kathie Lee Gifford changed all that with her very entertaining show that has a banquet table full of outstanding performances and excellent direction by David Armstrong.
Prayer, persistence and patience certainly pay off here.
www.ScandalousOnBroadway.com Photos: Jeremy Daniel
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