It's easy to worship Carolee Carmello, but the evangelical new musical she stars in won't be moving any bodies, heavenly or otherwise.
Early on in Scandalous at the Neil Simon Theatre, a bit of spiritual wisdom is imparted to a young Aimee Kennedy (Carolee Carmello), who later becomes Aimee Semple McPherson. She's told that "as long as you have a pulse, you have a purpose." Late in the second act of this new musical I checked my own pulse, and came to realize that, at least for the short-term, my purpose is to warn theatergoers off of this woefully undercooked bio-tuner.
It's genuinely unfortunate that Scandalous inspires this sort of reaction. Aimee's real-life story has all the elements of a potentially engrossing night at the theater. She grows up poor in Canada with a doting father (George Hearn) and pious mother (Candy Buckley) who's fearful of her daughter's headstrong ways. She marries a dashing Irish Pentecostal preacher Robert Semple (Edward Watts), who brings her to China, [Spoiler Alert] then dies (in a moment absurdly shunted offstage).
And then there's her ascension to the position of pre-eminent American evangelical queen, which includes her building her own Christian radio station with the help of Robert Ormiston (Andrew Samonsky), cultivating a devout audience, and triggering a major scandal with a 12-day disappearance that nearly derails her pious career. (She claims she was kidnapped. Prosecutors before a grand jury claim she was shacked up with Ormiston.)
But the creators consistently undermine Aimee's tale. First there's Kathie Lee Gifford's by-the-numbers book and schmaltzy lyrics. Composers David Pomeranz and David Friedman, abetted by Gifford (who's supplied additional music), only make matters worse with a generic, bombastic score. Director David Armstrong's lackluster staging only underscores the mediocrity of the writing.
The one person who is certainly not at fault in the musical's failings is Carmello. She delivers a passionate and rousingly sung performance at every turn in a production that treats McPherson's life from childhood through scandal as "and then I" pageant. Early on, Carmello's firebrand teenager is perfection, capturing not only the gawkiness of a young woman who's experienced a pubescent growth spurt, but also the high pitched, staccato rhythms that kids use when they're arguing with their parents.
When she later establishes her Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, which literally had thousands of patrons worshipping each weekend during the first part of the 20th century, Carmello's performance takes on a grace and poise that belies the character's humble upbringings. Perhaps most impressively, Carmello never looks uncomfortable whenever Gifford's book requires her to deliver banal narration.
The actress even seems to have the power to ignore the tacky opulence of set designer Walt Spangler's glittery art deco set surrounding her. While the design is meant to invoke the spirit of Aimee's grandiose church, it looks more like the Fortress of Solitude from the Superman movies of the 1970s.
Given this frame for the production, it's not terribly surprising that Spangler's work for three of the biblical "numbers" that Aimee offers at the Temple (this is a woman who perfected the art of marrying religion and theatricality, creating services that reportedly played like Vaudeville shows) actually succeed in their silliness. Audiences will not soon forget the campy cardboard cutouts of Adam and Eve, Moses and the Pharaoh, Samson and Delilah, or the over-the-top costumes that Gregory A. Poplyk has created for them--the sequined corset that he designed for the pharaoh is both amusing and bewildering.
But perhaps Spangler's work has been inspired by the bombastic songs that overpopulate the show. After a while, Aimee's true religion seems to be delivering tortured musical monologues about her frustrations or dreams. More often than not, Gifford's schematically rhymed lyrics sound like they might have been lifted from Hallmark. At one point she even invokes the classic Arlen and Harburg's "Over the Rainbow," when Aimee sings "If other girls go dancing, then, damnit, why can't I?"
To their credit, Pomeranz and Friedman demonstrate an ability to write more than a power ballad. When Aimee's being wooed by the dashing Semple the composers provide a couple pleasant Celtic tunes, and they even employ a kind of barbershop quartet tune for reporters in L.A. who have become obsessed with Aimee and are fuelling her nationwide fame. Audiences probably won't leave humming the tune, but it mercifully serves as a respite from the other more thunderous tunes.
There's also a decent honky-tonk number for Emma Jo Schaeffer (Roz Ryan), the whorehouse madam whom Aimee converts en route to the West Coast. Unfortunately, theatergoers may not be able to appreciate the tune, as Lorin Latarro's leg-spreading choreography for Emma Jo's girls is so crass it's hard not to fixate on it.
Like Carmello, Ryan demonstrates a fierce commitment to her craft, turning in a remarkably credible performance. The same can be said of some of George Hearn, who first plays Aimee's dad, then a minister in L.A. who proves to be her biggest foe. Similarly, Samonsky, who is credited for playing Harold McPherson (Aimee's second husband who astonishingly has nary a line or a song), creates sparks as Aimee's radio partner Ormiston. Sadly, the usually reliable Buckley turns in grossly caricatured turn as Aimee's mom, barking out lines and grimacing like Margaret Hamilton in her "Wicked Witch of the West" days.
Buckley's turn proves to be emblematic of the entire experience of Scandalous. Though it initially intrigues in its almost ludicrous enormity, the production lacks subtlety and quickly grows wearisome. As this show's tacky spectacle, flaccid storytelling and unmemorable songwriting mount, it becomes impossible to care about Aimee.