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Theater Review: ‘Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson’

Triumph and fall of an amazing woman

By Diana Barth Created: November 24, 2012 Last Updated: November 29, 2012
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NEW YORK—Arguably, the greatest asset of “Scandalous,” the new musical with book, lyrics, and additional music by noted TV host Kathie Lee Gifford, is the performance of the central character by Carolee Carmello.

Carmello has played leading roles in a few Broadway shows, but never in a role that could bring her over the top and enable her to carry a show virtually single-handedly. And here she does not disappoint. Her voice is vivid, large, and filled with passion—for a full two-and-a-half hours.

Unfortunately, one performance does not a show make. The production (under the direction of David Armstrong) is just not as interesting as it should have been. But “Scandalous” has many positive elements, and according to some audience reviews, it lacks for nothing.

Certainly, the central character is worthy of a theatrical portrayal. Aimee was one of the first superevangelists who created an enormous following and ultimately had her own powerful pulpit: the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, where she preached to thousands, all of whom adored her and claimed she had cured them of severe illnesses.

Born and raised on a small farm in Canada, she is unhappily controlled by her domineering God-fearing mother, Minnie Kennedy (Candy Buckley), and longs for the freedom to express herself. Her loving father, James (beautifully played by two-time Tony winner George Hearn), tries to protect his daughter, but he is no match for the willful Minnie.

But an attractive Holy Roller, Robert Semple (handsome Edward Watts), enters the picture, sweeps Aimee off her feet, and marries her. Traveling together to China to undertake a ministry, Robert dies of malaria, leaving Aimee alone with an infant.

Flash forward: Aimee returns to the States, developing small ministries in her travels, and ends up in Los Angeles. Now married to a kind man, Harold McPherson (Andrew Samonsky), she meets other people, notably two men: David Hutton (doubled by Watts) and radio technician Kenneth Ormiston (doubled by Samonsky).

There are intimations of sexual scandal. Aimee claims to have been kidnapped and taken to Mexico; her enemies insist she’s been holed up somewhere with a lover.

Aimee falls from grace. And dies young: at age 53.

The production enables Carmello to belt out a number of rousing gospel-type numbers, aided by a strong supporting cast, notably Roz Ryan. Ryan plays Emma Jo, a former madam of ill repute who becomes Aimee’s sidekick.

I was left feeling that there is a more remarkable story of McPherson that remains to be told. What was really the secret of her charisma? Couldn’t more have been developed of what must have been a mesmerizing style or intriguing content in her sermons? Those factors were not apparent in this production.

But it’s possible for a viewer to experience some lively singing (music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman) and acting on the stage of the Neil Simon Theatre.

Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson]
Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd Street
Tickets: 877-250-2929 or visit www.scandalousonbroadway.com
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Open run

Diana Barth writes and publishes “New Millennium,” an arts publication. For information: www. diabarth@juno.com.

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