This will sound harsh, but it is true: Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson is among the four or five worst Broadway musicals I've seen in nearly 30 years of attending shows. The only reason I didn't leave at intermission was because I was comped and felt an obligation to see the whole show in order to give a full and fair review. So here it goes.
There is exactly one moment in the entire production that offers a glimpse of what could have been. The opening of Act Two, "Hollywood Aimee," offers a stylized, interesting staging with the only song in the score that sounds remotely different from the other 28 songs listed in the Playbill. That's it for the positives.
|Aimee Semple McPherson on trial|
Oh, I know what you are thinking: "What about the great Carolee Carmello?" The gal can belt out money notes like nobody's business, it's true - several of them got a hand all by themselves from a couple dozen of the maybe 300 of us in the house. But let's face it. She has no business playing a fifteen year old, and badly. I literally blushed with embarrassment on Carmello's behalf. Maybe it's time to reevaluate just where she sits in the hierarchy of Broadway divas. She works way too hard to carry a show (even this one). One would think, that with a list of credits like hers, she'd be able to handle all of the responsibilities of an above-the-title lead. Her entire performance consists of that vacant, toothy grin and that determined-yet-also-vacant glint in the eye that all evangelists seem to have - charming and decidedly less than genuine. Her movements seem limited to sprinting around the ice castle set and waving her arms more like a person who is on a skateboard for the very first time more than one moved to gesture toward Heaven. By all accounts (including several mentions in the fact-filled, Weekly Reader-esque book) Sister Aimee had charisma to spare. Ms. Carmello has very little of it. Her much storied 7 minutes offstage were a welcome reprieve from her otherwise one-note, one intensity, shrill performance.
How she portrays the late Semple McPherson is ultimately not entirely up to her, and in defense of Ms. Carmello, it is important to recognize that she is not acting alone. (There is irony in that statement, since the musical amounts to a one-woman show with the rest of the cast as scenery.) This musical breaks what are, for me, three of the cardinal rules of musical theatre:
|Set by Walter Spangler, lights by Natasha Katz and|
costumes by Gregory A. Poplyk
1. If you are offering up a concept, follow through with it 100%. In this case, the show is framed as a trial (part of the too obvious double meaning behind the subtitle) with Aimee being called upon to answer for her alleged crimes against the people of Los Angeles. Trials all by themselves are inherently dramatic and full of opportunities to create tense, theatrical moments. But after a brief introduction at the start of the show, and revisiting it much later, the framework vanishes, and the show meanders aimlessly instead of being a cohesive, interesting whole. Similarly, the design elements should support that concept; here they fail on their own since there is no concept to follow. The most heinous design element here is the extremely poor sound design by Ken Travis, whose lack of concern about the balance between the orchestra and the singer (chiefly Carmello - no wonder she was put on vocal rest) is criminal. The vast majority of lyrics in most of the songs is drowned out. And if Tony Awards could be rescinded for future crimes against theatre, Natasha Katz should lose at least one for decorating Walt Spangler's dull set with tube lights - the kind people hang in dorm rooms or under shelves, and one for relying way too much on spotlights. Back to Spangler's set - is it possible that all of it was cobbled together from its previous incarnations in Virginia and Seattle? That's the only explanation I can think of to tell why the drops look like they were done by different artists, that the set pieces alternated between copiously detailed realism and art-deco suggestiveness. And the costumes by Gregory A. Poplyk remind me more of my high school/college days spent trolling attics, thrift stores, and sewing costumes made from Simplicity Patterns to dress a cast, than of a Broadway caliber design.
|George Hearn and Roz Ryan|
|Carolee Carmello and Edward Watts|
2. Give your talent something to work with and accentuate their gifts. Why on Earth would George Hearn take a job that barely allows him to sing or act? He gets two notes to play - the bland as oatmeal good guy and the sharp-tongued self-righteous rival evangelist. Why would Roz Ryan agree to play a role that perpetuates that tired stereotype of step'n fetchit sidekick whose true wisdom is tempered by sharp-witted bon mots? And what does it say about a show when there are TWO romantic interests and neither shows a second of charm, sex appeal or charisma. Sorry, Edward Watts, you may have 8 cans in your 6 pack, but a bare chest and toothy grin does not a character make. (I will admit he was better in Act One as Robert Semple, but not by much.) And how about poor Andrew Samonsky whose one role consists of a walk across the stage and a bare arm exposed from under the covers of a bed (I can't even confirm it was actually him in the bed), and his second role is so hastily explained I'm not entirely sure why he gets kicked to the curb along Watts' character. Leave it to the always underrated Candy Buckley to lift a one note bad mother into a two note bad mom with a caring streak. One imagines she defied the powers that be to leave just to do more than the Wicked Witch of the West scowl she was stuck with in Act One, just to add a layer in Act Two.
|Andrew Samonsky and Carolee Carmello|
|Candy Buckley, Edward Watts and Carolee Carmello|
3. SHOW US, DON'T TELL US! I blame nearly every flaw in this "piece" squarely on its creators. I hope that all of the accolades earned by director David Armstrong in Seattle were for more than what he's done here: Aimee center, everything else on steps to the side, everyone facing forward to yell out facts or sing loudly. And I hope that the next time that Lorin Latarro choreographs a show she comes up with more than more-gymnastic-than-sexy splits for hookers and reporters fanning themselves in unison to a beat plunked out the string section. But the whole cast could sit on black chairs and do nothing if the script they read and the songs they sang had something to say. The book and lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford are alternately a list of factoids and banal platitudes. Nearly every opportunity to show us what a remarkable woman Ms. Semple McPherson was, and what a crazy life she led are told to us, tossed off in a line or two, rather than shown to us. Two pivotal, life-changing moments in her saga are mentioned, not acted out. First, the love of her life is felled by malaria while doing mission work in China. But what does Gifford give us? A throw away number on the slow boat to China done by inappropriately stereotypical Irish folk who dance a jig while rhyming "Lassie" with "a nice assie" (how smugly Kathie Lee must have giggled when she penned that gem...). Or how about the mini-soap scene we got to hear where, after nearly bleeding to death giving birth, Aimee hears the voice of God, which ultimately causes her to create the Four Square Church, which still exists today. A monumental moment is reduced to a quick bit of dialogue during an onstage costume change. And the entire reason she's on trial - an alleged fake kidnapping which calls into question the running of her church is told to us as a series of newspaper headlines. How she gets out of it is equally undramatic - two confrontations that pit the holier than thou women (not Aimee herself) against two every-man-is-a-lying-cheating-dog guys. Again, we see nothing, we just hear about it. The last time Gifford dips into that overused well is meant to sear us with its intensity and move us to tears, as the people in Semple's past tell us the facts surrounding her death and continued triumph as a soon-to-be saint. (Kathie Lee, Evita did it first and much better - a body missing for 15 years trumps being buried on your birthday every time.) Gifford's lyrics are as clever as Gifford thinks she is. That is to say they rhyme, pretend occasionally to be naughty, and, when in doubt, become so sanctimonious and faux sincere as to cause nausea. Like Aimee, Kathie Lee has her followers; both groups thrive on simplistic banalities wrapped up in insincere Godliness and cheap theatrics with the faintest whiff of sleaziness. The best I can say for the musical aspect of the score is that the three, yes, three composers (Gifford, David Friedman and David Pomeranz) have truly nailed the gospel number style. Unfortunately, all of the numbers sound exactly the same - and not in that way that you can tell a Sondheim song or a Herman production number.
|The choreography of Lorin Latarro: From evangelists...|
|...to ladies of the night.|
Before you write to tell me how harsh and unforgiving I am with this review, consider this: I have given 100% of my convictions that this is a bad show. Whether you like what I have to say or not, I have given this as much thought as I do any show I rave about. If the people behind Scandalous had given as much thought to their work and pushed the limits with whatever they were trying to say, I might still hate it, but I'd at least respect the effort. As it is, the only thing scandalous about Scandalous is the fact that it is still running. I felt the most for the cast at the curtain call, who, to a person, looked not only weary after the 8th show of the week, but as bored with the whole affair as I was. (They were not fooled by a partial standing ovation led by Gifford herself.) How about showing these nice people the same mercy Sister Aimee preached about and close this ungodly mess?
(Photos by Jeremy Daniel)
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