Friday, November 16, 2012

Review - Broadway - Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson

Scandalous for all the wrong reasons
Sunday 11th November, 2012
Neil Simon Theatre, New York

Book and lyrics: Kathie Lee Gifford

Music: David Pomeranz and David Friedman
Director: David Armstrong
Choreography: Lorin Latarro

Carolee Carmello’s spirited performance as Aimee Semple McPherson in Scandalous is the only saving grace in what is otherwise a lackluster new musical.

Scandalous documents the life of early 20th Century evangelist Semple from her childhood to her mysterious kidnapping and ensuing public trial. Despite such promising subject matter, heaven couldn’t help this show, which spends too long preaching religious doctrines rather than examining the juicy details of the evangelist's controversial life. Villain or victim? Sinner or saint? The substance of the moral debate comes too little too late.
The religiosity of the show will distance many atheists and non-Christians. Bible bashing comes with the territory – a story about a preacher has to have preaching in it – but there is no creativity or imagination in the book or score. The show sounds like Oklahoma meets Wicked, with nothing original to offer. One of the big belty numbers “Why Can’t I” is more-or-less a regurgitation of “The Wizard and I.”  
The score’s only strength is that it gives Carmello a chance to show off her impressive vocals. Aimee Semple is a physically and vocally demanding role. Carmello leaves the stage so infrequently that cast members have to bring her a glass of water during transition scenes.
Staging (design by Walt Spanger) is one of the stronger points of the show, especially Semple’s versatile Angelus Temple set that transforms into ballrooms and houses. The show also churns through a great number of costumes (design by Gregory Poplyk); some for scenes that only last a few minutes. Particularly, a lot of effort is put into re-creating the elaborate Biblical sets Semple uses for her weekly sermons. From Adam and Eve to Moses and Samson and Delilah, the scenes are a visual spectacle, yet such colossal changes for so little stage time don’t add enough value to warrant the effort. If anything, they seem a shameless attempt to draw attention away from the boring book and score and add some life to the performance.
Funny moments with the stereotypical comedic black sidekick (played by a fierce Roz Ryan) make for the rare light touches in the story. Edward Watts as Semple’s first and (thanks to a wig change) third husband gives a solid performance. George Hearn as Semple’s father and later rival preacher, however, is a surprising disappointment. Hearn is so comfortable on stage that it felt like we were in his living room watching him perform. He lacked vocal projection and stage presence. Carmello as Semple, on the other hand, is stupendous. Her Semple is so lovable and warm that it’s hard to think ill of her even as she runs away with a married man.
A story about a woman surrounded by strong woman is fresh air in a male-dominated musical industry. Beyond gender politics, though, the strength of the story – and what gives the subject matter potential (even if it is unfulfilled in this production) – is the musical’s discourse about morality and justice. Here is a preacher who cares for people and gives their lives’ meaning but is a hypocrite by her own terms. Does such hypocrisy rule out all good? Justice is perverted and a guilty woman gets off free, but Semple couldn’t continue to help society’s needy from a jail cell. The show demonstrates that, ironically, there are no black and white truths; that what is right is not always clear-cut – despite the fervent doctrines Semple preached. This discussion, along with Carmello’s giving performance, are the only incentives to see Scandalous

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