Scandalous Review - Broadway musicalThe story is as familiar as anything in the Gospels. Little girl from Nowheresville dreams of fame on the world stage. Rebelling against a stern upbringing, she lights out for the big time, picking up and losing a husband or two before amassing an adoring audience. Then come the dark days, as her morals begin to melt in the hot Hollywood spotlight: the pill popping, the bad romances and legal squabbles, the flight from the scavenging reporters. Salvation arrives on cue, just in time for the finale.
“Scandalous,” a new Broadway musical about Aimee Semple McPherson, deviates from the boilerplate only in the distinctive passions of its heroine, whose fame derived not from stage or screen but from the pulpit. While collecting a fan base that would be the envy of any of her movie star contemporaries in the 1920s and ’30s, McPherson was also converting thousands to Christianity, healing the sick through the laying on of hands, and establishing the foundations on which the modern evangelical movement would be built.
“The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson,” as the show is subtitled, are actually much more fascinating than you would gather from this formulaic Broadway musical. With book and lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford and music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman, “Scandalous,” which opened on Thursday night at the Neil Simon Theater, condenses and rearranges McPherson’s story to fit smoothly into the familiar grooves of celebrity biography. In the process the show reduces McPherson’s remarkable life to a cliché-bestrewn fable about the wages of fame.
Ms. Gifford herself is something of an expert on that subject: she’s known primarily as a perky television morning show host with a bit of the mean girl lurking behind the blinding smile. Recently she’s begun moonlighting: “Under the Bridge,” a cutesy children’s musical with book and lyrics by Ms. Gifford, was produced Off Broadway in 2005. Broadway jackals suspicious of Ms. Gifford’s bona fides were surely hoping for an epoch-making turkey in time for Thanksgiving. Sorry, guys. “Scandalous” isn’t so much scandalously bad as it is generic and dull.
True, collectors of camp might find some minor pleasures in the splashy biblical pageants of the second act, when McPherson, portrayed with hearty gumption by Carolee Carmello, looks on with a twinkly eye as Adam and Eve chomp from a sequined apple, or vamps as an alluring Delilah as Samson groans in beefcake bondage.
But these self-consciously silly sequences are actually reasonable representations of the illustrated sermons McPherson regularly delivered as the Sunday night special at her spectacular Los Angeles church, the Angelus Temple. As Daniel Mark Epstein notes in his engrossing biography, she used “the American revival meeting’s dramatic structure to create a fluid form of religious theater that resembled, in all but content, a musical comedy.”
Broadway has specialized in its own lavish brand of religious theater lately: last season we were treated to another unheavenly hootenanny about an evangelical preacher, “Leap of Faith,” along with revivals of “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” And of course that merry sendup of the oddities of Mormonism remains the hottest ticket in town. But God and the good works (and mostly bad musicals) he inspires are almost reduced to a walk-on in “Scandalous,” which plays down McPherson’s extraordinary ministry and spends most of its time dramatizing the punishing peaks and valleys of her personal life.
On a glittery white set by Walt Spangler designed to evoke a grandiose pulpit, the show opens with McPherson facing the toughest of her literal trials. In 1926 she and her mother were charged with obstruction of justice in relation to McPherson’s mysterious disappearance from a Santa Monica, Calif., beach. McPherson said she was kidnapped, and after a month of being held prisoner escaped from her captors in Mexico. Rumormongers took a dim view of this strange story — and its admitted inconsistencies — and suggested she’d been holed up in a hotel with a lover.
As her fate hangs in the balance, McPherson steps forward to narrate (and narrate, and narrate) the story of her life, from her beginnings in rural Canada to the pinnacle of her achievement. Highlights and low points include her rapturous love for her first husband, the Irish-born preacher Robert Semple (Edward Watts, of handsome face and voice), who died shortly after their marriage while they were on a mission in China; the tangled relationship with her domineering mother, Minnie (a stolid Candy Buckley), who largely handles the management of McPherson’s booming career; the intimations of sexual scandal hovering around her cozy relationship with a radio technician (Andrew Samonsky); and her unhappy third marriage to a singer in the church, David Hutton, who’s been given a major aesthetic upgrade: unprepossessing in actuality, he’s portrayed by the gleamingly buffed Mr. Watts, now in a blond wig.
Ms. Carmello, a gloriously gifted singing actress, has never managed to snag a star-making breakout role on Broadway — not all that surprising in these difficult days for musical theater. Sister Aimee certainly provides plenty of opportunities for Ms. Carmello to thrill us with the purity and power of her voice. She leads a few rousing come-to-Jesus gospel-tinged numbers with bright-beaming intensity. She delivers the climactic soul-baring ballad with plenty of emotional heat. What she cannot do — no singer without the power of miracle could — is bring distinction to songs that never rise above the serviceable.
And while Ms. Carmello persuasively charts McPherson’s journey from innocent from the sticks to impassioned healer to disillusioned celebrity, Ms. Gifford’s book never really makes us see why McPherson had such mesmeric power over her followers, and only sketches in the details of her tremendous hold on the popular imagination in the years of her fame.
The mystery of faith healing is, of course, not an easy thing to dramatize. It may be just as well that “Scandalous” does not include a chorus line of sinners tossing their crutches into the wings and making like the Rockettes after Sister Aimee has laid a hand on their crippled limbs. But it might be a lot more fun — and certainly more memorable — if it did.
Last Update:October, 25th 2023