Scandalous: Theater Review

Kathie Lee Gifford
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

"BJ. Before Jay. Right? ... What did I say? Someone has to clue me in on that?"

Awkward storytelling and a bland staging and score mark this ambitious musical about the famed evangelist tarred by a tabloid scandal.

Kathie Lee Gifford's musical depicts the rise and fall of famed '20s-era evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.

It’s not easy to spread the word of God on Broadway these days, unless, of course, you’re Mormon. Arriving on the heels of last season’s fast flop, Leap of Faith, is Scandalous, the new musical written by television personality Kathie Lee Gifford. Subtitled The Life and Times of Aimee Semple McPherson, it tells the true-life tale of the 1920s-era preacher whose widespread fame and rabid following was a precursor to the modern-day Evangelical movement.

The story of this early media superstar who fell from grace thanks to a juicy tabloid scandal would seem to be ideal fodder for deluxe musical treatment. Unfortunately, what’s now landed on Broadway after a lengthy gestation period—Gifford has been working on the show for well over a decade, and it’s received two previous regional productions—is unlikely to spark any hosannas. Somehow, its creators, including composers David Pomeranz and David Friedman, have managed to make the outlandish tale simply dull. Its sole attribute is the dynamic performance by Broadway veteran Carolee Carmello (Parade, Mamma Mia!) in the lead role.

The blandness is apparent from the very beginning, with the first sight of Walt Spangler’s set design featuring an elevated podium framed by two massive gleaming staircases. The latter remain onstage throughout the evening, less suggestive of a stairway to heaven than artistic laziness.

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Gifford’s awkward book features Aimee narrating the proceedings (when she first announces that her story begins when she was six years old there were audible groans from the audience). Fortunately, the story quickly shifts to her teenage years growing up on a Canadian farm with her religiously devout mother Minnie (Candy Buckley) and her less restrictive father James (George Hearn).

When a dashingly charismatic Irish Pentecostal preacher, Robert Semple (Edward Watts) passes through, he and Aimee quickly fall in love. But he then just as quickly dies, leaving her a single mother.  She soon marries another man whose insignificance is signaled here by the fact that he’s given not a single line of dialogue.

After a near-death experience Aimee sees the light and—inspired by seeing Theda Bara in the silent film Salome—establishes a ministry based on showbiz razzle-dazzle. She founded the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles—the first mega-church--and preached to the masses via her own radio station.

The most bizarre chapter of her story, and the one that provides the show its title, is her mysterious 1926 disappearance from a California beach, only to show up in Mexico five weeks later claiming to have been kidnapped. There was widespread speculation that she was instead shacked up in a hotel with her married radio engineer lover (Andrew Samonsky). She and her mother were charged with obstruction of justice, but the case was ultimately dropped.

Despite the provocativeness of the subject matter, the musical never hits any dramatic heights, lurching through its episodic storyline like a musical Wikipedia entry. It would perhaps not matter if the score was more effective, but despite several rousing gospel-style numbers it’s mostly bland and forgettable, with Gifford’s dutifully rhyming lyrics providing little compensation.

David Armstrong’s staging and Lorin Latarro’s choreography are similarly uninspired, and a profusion of second act numbers depicting McPherson’s pageant-like stagings of such Biblical episodes as Adam and Eve and Samson and Delilah, while apparently not far from the truth, have a campiness that’s accentuated by the over-the-top, body-baring costumes.

Hearn, doubling as Aimee’s father and a hypocritical rival preacher, provides solid support, although it’s a shame he wasn’t handed more songs. Buckley, as the stern mother who eventually rallies to her daughter’s case, and Roz Ryan, as a former madam who becomes Aimee’s chief acolyte, are unable to rise above their characters’ stereotypical attributes.

It’s only Carmello, onstage nearly throughout the 2 1/2 hour proceedings, who makes the show tolerable. Delivering a dynamic turn showcasing perhaps the best pipes on Broadway, she’s entirely convincing, whether playing the wide-eyed, teenage Aimee or the savvy media phenomenon she later became. But despite the performer’s virtuosic efforts, it will take more than a few prayers to keep Scandalous from turning into a quickly fading memory.

Cast: Carolee Carmello, George Hearn, Candy Buckley, Edward Watts, Roz Ryan, Andrew Samonsky

Book/lyrics/additional music: Kathie Lee Gifford

Music: David Pomeranz, David Friedman

Director:  David Armstrong

Choreographer: Lorin Latarro

Set designer: Walt Spangler

Costume designer: Gregory A. Poplyk

Lighting designer: Natasha Katz

Sound designer: Ken Travis

Executive producer: Jeffrey Finn

Presented by Betsy & Dick DeVos, Foursquare Foundation, Cantinas Ranch Foundation, The Stand Up Group, in association with The5th Avenue Theatre