Spirituality has been a popular topic on Broadway in the past year, with revivals of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar as well as the original musical Leap of Faith all experiencing short-lived runs. While Godspell was entertaining and Jesus Christ Superstar featured the superb vocals of Josh Young, Leap of Faith was severely disappointing and none of the three musicals dazzled me or inspired an epiphany of faith. And I am sorry to say Scandalous, the latest musical about religion to open on Broadway, is equally, if not more, underwhelming.
A bio-musical about the life of early-20th-century evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, with book and lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford and music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman, Scandalous is a disappointingly formulaic show that is so by-the-books it does its intriguing subject a disservice. Joel Fram’s music direction and vocal arrangements are impressive, if a bit too amplified at the performance I attended, and Carmello’s singing is truly excellent, but the quality of the songs does not do her talents justice.
Opening with McPherson’s notorious 1926 trial where she was accused of faking her own kidnapping, Scandalous is narrated using the technique of flashbacks within flashbacks, focusing on select highlights throughout her decades-long career as an evangelist preacher. After meeting her first husband, Robert James Semple, who died of malaria on a mission trip to China, she heard the calling while married to her second husband Harold Stewart McPherson and began a career as a passionate evangelist preacher. Credited with converting thousands of people to Christianity, healing the sick through the laying on of hands and helping to establish the foundations that the modern evangelical movement would be built on. She was also divorced by McPherson, persecuted by the Ku Klux Klan for holding racially integrated services at her temple and carried on an affair with a married man.
While McPherson’s life may seem like perfect fodder for a musical, very little of the dramatic events of her life take place on stage. Instead, it is narrated through dialogue, ignoring the rule of “show, don’t tell,” and the book is so by-the-numbers that it seems disrespectful to McPherson’s achievements, of which there are many.
Staged on a set by Walt Spanger that evokes a grandiose staircase, Scandalous travels briskly through the locations of McPherson’s life, but for an inexplicable reason the staircase never leaves the stage, even when scenes take place at the farm McPherson lived on as a child. Spanger gets especially creative when depicting the illustrated sermons McPherson would deliver at her temple, complete with the scantily clad duo of Adam and Eve.
The greatest asset of Scandalous is its leading lady, the superb Carolee Carmello who gives a spellbinding performance as McPherson, emphasizing the humanity behind the public figure as well as depicting the mesmerizing persona that McPherson possessed and which captivated so many. Carmello, who is onstage for all but 11 minutes of the show’s two-and-a-half hours, progressing from age 16 to 50 before the audience’s eyes, is outstanding. She believably depicts her as a restless teenager longing for a bigger world than her family farm and falling in love for the first time with the charismatic Semple (a charming Edward Watts) without resorting to cliches. Her anguish at the death of her husband, which left her widowed and pregnant, which she channels into the song “How Could You?” sung at none other than God himself, is palpable. After being told by God she should preach His word, which she begins by standing alone and singing in a street, McPherson quickly rises to success and fame.
The first act of Scandalous tells of McPherson’s rise to notoriety, while the second focuses on the darker aspects of her life – being targeted by the Ku Klux Klan for racially integrating her services, her divorce from her second husband and unhappy marriage to her third, her addiction to medication, her love affair with a married man and her month-long disappearance which she claimed was a kidnapping. (Others claim she was holed up in a hotel room with her lover.) Each of these items are addressed in the script, but none of them receive the attention or sobriety they deserve. Instead, they appear to be checked off a list of key items from McPherson’s life that should be included in the musical.
Thankfully, the excellent cast boosts the show above its disappointing mediocrity. Candy Buckley plays Aimee’s mother, overbearing and loyal from childhood until death, with a fierce sobriety. As Emma Jo Schaeffer, the brothel owner turned assistant, Roz Ryan interjects some sass into the more mundane scenes. Watts, as well as playing Aimee’s first husband, also plays David Hutton, a love interest later in life and depicts a wide range of ability while playing these two extremely different men. Andrew Samonsky plays Kenneth Ormiston, another love interest, with intriguing understatement. And George Hearn capably does what he can with the cardboard cutout villain role of Brother Bob, a sexist preacher determined to bring an end to McPherson’s success, but I was unable to understand why such a talented singer would not be given a single song in this lengthy musical.
While I am happy to see a musical centered around a woman’s career rather than simply a love story, the by-the-numbers book of Scandalous glosses over the more interesting and serious aspects of McPherson’s life. While her first husband is presented as a great and passionate love, her second husband is only mentioned in passing, as are her two children. When he threatens to divorce her, she appears to only be concerned about how it would affect her career; no one would want to see a divorced woman preach the word of God. And as her fame steadily increases and both Hutton and Ormiston pursue relationships with McPherson, (through song, in a duet called “It’s Just You”) her success and achievements are presented as merely obstacles to what “really matters” – which is apparently romantic love. While careers, especially those as demanding as Aimee’s, can certainly make marriage or family difficult, I was disappointed to see this challenge presented as a matter of one or the other – not both. The patronizing, demoralizing way these men approached her was equally as disappointing; rather than respect Aimee’s accomplishments, they seemed determined to expose a scared, lonely little girl underneath the glittering robes. And with Carmello playing Aimee in such a fiercely formed, exciting performance, the idea of her being a scared little girl is simply unbelievable.
While Carmello’s performance is nothing short of miraculous, Scandalous is disappointingly tame.