BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
Carolee Carmello lends her thrilling voice and charismatic presence to the central role of Aimee Semple McPherson, the Roaring ‘20s evangelist, in the new Broadway musical “Scandalous.”
Currently on view at the Neil Simon Theater, the musical is the love child of TV host Kathie Lee Gifford, who wrote the book, lyrics and even some of the tunes and is said to have toiled on the show for more than a dozen years.
Subtitled “The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson,” the musical traces Aimee’s evolution from a stage-struck Canadian farm girl to her glory years in 1920s Hollywood as a hallelujah headliner presiding over a vast Pentecostal empire that featured lavish Biblical pageants and radio broadcasts. The second act invokes troublous doings including a month-long disappearance from which Aimee returned claiming she had escaped kidnappers but which others thought was a hoax – and led to a sensational trial.
Although Gifford latched on to a fabulous subject for a musical, her straightforward treatment of it turns out to be mostly pedestrian and plodding in spite of the frequently bombastic music furnished by David Pomeranz and David Friedman. While Gifford’s libretto is professional in caliber, her sympathetic portrait of the driven Aimee lacks complexity and the busy second act builds up to not much of anything.
A top-flight Broadway artist, Carmello’s strong, stratospheric vocals and fervent performance as Aimee is the show’s most noteworthy asset. Looking very much like the red-haired evangelist – Paul Huntley’s wigs are spot-on – Carmello gives the heroine the blazing inner passion that the script and score merely intimates.
Making the maximum of a clichéd character – a brothel owner reformed into Aimee’s loyal aide – Roz Ryan injects some needed humor into the proceedings. A flinty Candy Buckley unflinchingly depicts Aimee’s disapproving mother. Edward Watts, who sings handsomely, effectively portrays Aimee’s ill-fated preacher husband and later returns as a blond hunk of a hambone actor who tempts her. George Hearn is likeable as Aimee’s understanding old paw and then loathsome as a rival clergyman.