Sunday, November 18, 2012

theatre review SCANDALOUS, Broadway, November 13

Creating a musical must be hard work, especially one that isn't based on a movie or book where all of the plot points and characters already exist.  Kathie Lee Gifford has spent the past ten years honing the new musical Scandalous.   She's steered the show through various regional productions, with different directors, cast members, changing songs and even a changing title along the way.  The musical, which opened this past Thursday has had one consistent all along in addition to Gifford, and that is Carolee Carmello in the lead role.  Carmello is excellent in the role and Gifford deserves an "A" for her efforts and her tenacity to get this show to Broadway.  However Gifford is wearing many hats with this show and her ability as the book writer, lyricist, additional composer and all around press agent through her chatting up the show during her Today Show co-host duties don't fare as well.  Like it's fellow religious based show from last season, Leap of Faith, it is a show that I believe most likely won't be running for more then a few weeks after it's opening night.

Carolee Carmello
The musical is based on the life of Aimee Semple McPherson, the first "celebrity preacher" who saw her own share of highs and lows and the actual title of the show is Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson.   McPherson was a Pentecostal evangelist who had a passion for religion, theatre and life after being exposed to religion at a very young age by her mother and the theatre through her schooling.  Once she met the Irish Pentecostal preacher Robert Semple her journey had begun leaving her boring Canadian farm life behind and with a man that she not only loved but truly admired.  However, after Semple died of malaria while they were missionaries in China, Aimee found herself back in the states and now with a young child.  After a second husband and second child she found herself suffering from depression and near death but she then heard a voice, a voice that in her mind brought her back from near death and having received her "calling" she traveled the country saving souls as a revival preacher.  Her revival meetings included elaborately staged scenes from the bible and her fame which was fueled by the famous people Aimee encountered while in Hollywood like Charlie Chaplin and William Randolph Hearst, all gave her a huge following that helped in her building the over 5,000 seat Angelus Temple in Los Angeles.  She also started one of the first radio religious programs that helped make her known across the U.S.   It is a passionate story with a driven, powerful woman at the center and one understands why Gifford has been drawn to the life of McPherson and getting her story told.   However, it is the series of scandalous events in Aimee's life including romantic affairs, drug addiction, a mysterious month long disappearance and her use of faith healing and those somewhat provocative biblical pageants that give the musical it's title and the majority of the musical's interesting points, points that are at odds with the faith that drove Aimee.

Carmello and the fairly elaborate main set of the show
Framed by the 1927 court case where Aimee was on trial for faking her own kidnapping, Scandalous tells Aimee's story in flashback and while the musical is never preachy it does a very good job of showing the passion that Aimee had for life and religious and her connection to the people she came in contact with. 

Carmello is nothing short of brilliant in the part.  With one of the most powerful voices on Broadway, and a dozen Broadway shows on her resume, Carmello has unfortunately never found a lead role in a show to originate that has matched her talents and allowed her to become the Broadway leading lady she deserves to be.  While Scandalous has provided her with a great part to play, the creative elements of the show have unfortunately let her down once again.

Candy Buckley, Edward Watts and Carmello
Carmello plays Aimee from the age of 17 to her 40's and provides enough shading in her characterization to come across as both the naive teenager in the first part of act one as well as the woman who has seen many things in her life by the end of the second act.  She clearly gets across the drive that Aimee had to get the power and meaning of religion out to the masses and while there was the celebrity that came along with it, especially once she got to L.A. we never think from Carmello's performance that the fame was what was driving her.  And while I think this show won't have much of a run, I do think that Carmello's performance is one that might be remembered come Tony time next May and this show might end up with a nomination for Carmello's performance.

George Hearn and Roz Ryan
The rest of the cast is quite good with George Hearn playing two parts, first as Aimee's father, who provided Aimee with not only a good upbringing but also with the approval of what she wanted to do with her life.  Hearn also plays an L.A. preacher who is at odds with Aimee, mainly around the draw of her church and fame and how it is competing with his church.  Hearn is quite good in both parts, especially in his touching portrayal of Aimee's father.  Candy Buckley is Aimee's mother, and while the role is basically a one note part, Buckley gives the character the appropriate drive and convection that allows us to see where Aimee gets her drive from. 

The Adam and Eve biblical pageant
Roz Ryan is the woman who Aimee meets in a brothel who quickly leaves her Madame days behind to help Aimee on her journey.  Ryan is good in the part, but unfortunately the book gives her the majority of the jokes and while Ryan is up to the challenge, it still sorta turns her into the "big black funny lady" with the big voice who can get the punch line.  Edward Watts plays two key parts in the show, missionary Robert Semple in the first act and one of Aimee's lovers in the second.  He has a lovely voice, and a great torso that he gets to show off in those biblical tableaus.  In fact, he does such a good job in playing both parts that you barely realize it is the same actor playing both roles.  Andrew Samonsky is effective in the small part of the married man who helps Aimee get on the radio and who may or may not have been with Aimee, hold up in a California hotel, when Aimee was allegedly kidnapped in Mexico.   

Andrew Samonsky and Carmello
With music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman and additional music by Gifford, the score has a wide range of songs, but unfortunately none that really register.  David Armstrong directed the show and he manages to keep the show moving along through Aimee's elaborate story.  There is fairly basic choreography by Lorin Latarro   And while some of the creative cast have Broadway credits as performers this is the first time for all of them in these creative roles.

While there are a number of things that are good about this show, there are also many that aren't and sometimes there are things that are good and bad all at the same time.  For example, Gifford's book keeps the action moving along fairly quickly but there are far too many times when Carolee speaks to the audience with a "and then I did this" or "and then I did that" type of narration that is a sign of a weak writer trying to take shortcuts in explaining the action of their story.  The book is also never really clear on the actual events behind the trial.  While I understand that maybe no one really knows where Aimee was during those five weeks, the fact that the trial frames the show and so much of the second act is spent around it, for Gifford not to offer some facts or at least her thought behind the case make the whole point and the entire thrust of the show just fizzle out. 

Carmello and Watts
The score has many different styles of music which is a good thing - this isn't one of those shows where every song sounds exactly the same.  There are many nice songs in the show, with plenty of solos for Carmello as well as varied degrees of duets and ensemble songs.  However, many of Carmello's numbers have the phrasing at odds with the lyrics and music.  In fact the best song in the show is one where Aimee's two suitors are singing a duet and not one for Aimee.  Also most of the songs end with a large booming crescendo.  The sound design doesn't help with the amplification being extremely loud.

Also, the set design by Walt Spangler is fairly elaborate with the main set resembling the pulpit of the church that Aimee built in California.  However, while the side stairs of the set move toward the sides of the stage, they never move all the way off, thus leaving a strange playing space for the action of just the center half of the stage.  And Spangler's set pieces for the biblical tableau's in the second act are inventive and colorful but if you missed the line about Chaplin giving Aimee ideas about her sets you would think they were garish and completely at odds with what would normally be scene in a church. 

While Scandalous isn't the train wreck that many Gifford haters thought it would be, it just doesn't manage to provide an appropriate score and book in line with the passion and life that Aimee had. 

Official Show Site

Highlights from the show:

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the review. I've been listening to the OBCR and really wanted a perspective on the show other than the printed critics. Your thoughts are very insightful and confirms some suspicions I had based on the cast recording (which I am enjoying).