Based on the rollicking life of evangelist and media sensation Aimee Semple McPherson, new musical Saving Aimee is an illuminating biographical portrait — if not a terribly insightful one — of its conflicted protagonist.
The musical comes from the hand of Kathie Lee Gifford, who wrote the book and lyrics, and I’d say it’s pretty likely this piece of information will cause more skepticism that anticipation. But Gifford, who’s dabbled in musical theater for more than a decade without any major contributions, has written a sturdy piece of entertainment with Aimee.
Produced several times since its genesis in 2005, the show has reportedly undergone a fair amount of changes for its Seattle debut at the 5th Avenue, where it was in previews for three weeks before the opener. Again — not a fact that inspires supreme confidence. And yet Thursday’s opening night production revealed a show that felt fully formed — often derivative and occasionally too bloated, but substantially entertaining nonetheless, with a bright and brassy score by David Pomeranz and David Friedman.
Born in Canada, McPherson began her life as a lowly farm girl but became a major media figure in the 1920s and 1930s as she inspired thousands of churchgoers at her Los Angeles temple and founded the Foursquare movement. A consummate evangelist, she became arguably more known for her celebrity than her message and was racked with scandal late in life.
The larger-than-life nature of the character the show continually advances is a tough role for any performer to step into, but Broadway star Carolee Carmello dons the preacher habit and belts out her every number with the kind of unassailable confidence the real McPherson must have displayed. Whatever the other strengths and weaknesses of the show are, Carmello’s performance is the reason to see it. She never lets down, and for a character whose true persona became increasingly indistinguishable from her public image, it’s an essential component.
The first act is too slavish to facts, packing in more biographical information than necessary, but both Ed Watts as first husband, evangelist Robert Semple, and Brandon O’Neill as second husband, Harold McPherson, ensure it remains engaging. Things perk up in the second act as Aimee’s media empire grows enormous, and Watts and O’Neill return as two other men in her life — actor David Hutton and radio engineer Kenneth Ormiston, the other half of a fake kidnapping scandal that threatened to down Aimee’s reputation.
The trial surrounding the salacious circumstances is weaved throughout the show, but reaches a fever pitch in the second act, which often plays like a poor man’s Chicago — all the themes of celebrity obsession, judicial corruption and media frenzy without any of Kander and Ebb’s trenchant wit.
But Saving Aimee plays well despite it. Carmello brought down the house with nearly every number, and the looser nature of the second act even allowed some humor to shine through, often thanks to Roz Ryan. Playing brothel madam turned attendant to Aimee, Ryan was stuck with sassy black woman boilerplate, but she breathed sardonic life into it.
Saving Aimee is hindered by its worshipful portrayal of its titular character, who is deeply flawed but ultimately lionized, and an overstuffed book that displays an impressive grasp of the facts, but never approaches a critical perspective on Aimee. But with Carmello’s stunning performance chops and an imposing, elevated pulpit set by Walt Spangler commanding attention, one felt quite predisposed to forgive Aimee its sins.
Saving Aimee is on stage at the 5th Avenue Theatre through Oct. 29. Tickets are available at the 5th’s website.