Edward Watts and Carolee Carmello in a romantic moment in "Scandalous."… (Jeremy Daniel /AP/The Publicity…)
Theater history has been made at least twice with shows centering on fictitious female evangelists.
George Bernard Shaw's "Major Barbara" has been drawing laughs and making wry points about the intersection between religion and money since 1905.
"Guys and Dolls," with Frank Loesser songs helping spin a yarn first told by Damon Runyon about the improbable romance between a gambler and a missionary for the Salvation Army, helped put the "great" in "Great American Musical."
Could stage lightning strike again with the true-life, L.A.-centric story of Aimee Semple McPherson?
"Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson," with book and lyrics by erstwhile "Today Show" host Kathie Lee Gifford, opened Thursday on Broadway, spinning a musicalized biography of the evangelist and faith healer who founded the Foursquare Gospel Church in 1920s Los Angeles, using show-biz methods, radio broadcasts and celebrity-culture savvy to spread the faith.
Judging from the critics' response, McPherson, played by Carolee Carmello, won't be joining Barbara Undershaft and Sarah Brown just yet in the pantheon of beloved theater characters. But Carmello's talents elicited a hallelujah chorus.
Charles Isherwood in the New York Times had high praise for the lead actress, but felt she couldn't overcome lackluster songs (with music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman) that "never rise above the serviceable," and a story that didn't go below the surface: "while Ms. Carmello persuasively charts McPherson’s journey from innocent from the sticks to impassioned healer to disillusioned celebrity, Ms. Gifford’s book never really makes us see why McPherson had such mesmeric power over her followers, and only sketches in the details of her tremendous hold on the popular imagination in the years of her fame."
Linda Winer in Newsday said that while the show Gifford made happen "does not have the toxic aura of a vanity production," being "well-produced and professional...it's also not interesting, alas, at least not interesting enough to sustain 2 1/2 hours of fast-forward storytelling and inspirational songs that almost always end in throbbing climax....Carmello alone makes Aimee's journey feel as adventurous as it clearly was."
Mark Kennedy of the Associated Press didn't agree with the part about the show not being toxic, likening Gifford's 12-year quest to dramatize McPherson's life to Captain Ahab's search for Moby-Dick, which also ended quite badly: "what opened Thursday at the Neil Simon Theatre is insipid and patronizing, a work that seems more at home in a church parking lot than on Broadway."
Read more: http://www.ctpost.com/entertainment/article/Review-Kathie-Lee-Gifford-s-Scandalous-sins-4042416.php#ixzz2CNT4GAS4
In the New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz admired the "terrifically talented" Carmello, but nothing else. "Kathie Lee Gifford's overblown but undercooked singing bio could have used Sister Aimee's curative abilities."
Elysa Gardner of USA Today liked the show, saying that despite "some awkward and banal word choices" from Gifford's keyboard, "'Scandalous' deserves credit for its mix of unabashed razzle-dazzle, gentle irreverance and genuine heart."
It was a busy night for openings in New York, and critics for the New York Post and Wall Street Journal skipped "Scandalous" to review "Giant," the work of an established musical theater name, Michael John LaChiusa, whose take on the Edna Ferber novel (later a James Dean movie) opened off-Broadway at the Public Theater.
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