Previews: 10/13/12- Close: 11/20/12
Reviewed for TheaterOnline.com By: Ashley Griffin
Scandalous has quite a lot to recommend it. Which is rather surprising…
Scandalous is in sore need of a new marketing campaign. When I first saw the posters go up in Times Square – a female hand holding a half eaten apple against a beautiful blue sky with almost no other words but the title of the show – my gut reaction was that it was some sort of fairy tale musical. Not helped by the fact that it was displayed right next to the season two posters for the hit ABC series Once Upon A Time – which also had red apples on prominent display. I remember thinking the “Dick and Jane” sky seemed an odd backdrop. I then found out that it was a Kathie Lee Gifford musical. Still no clue. It was only by being very tied into the Broadway community and reading interviews with Ms. Gifford that I eventually learned that this was in fact a musical about Aimee Semple McPherson, and starred the incomparable Carolee Carmello.
Aimee Semple McPherson is perfect fodder for a Broadway musical. For those of you who have never heard of her (I’m realizing that very few people, at least among my New York circle of acquaintances do) the short version is: she was the real life inspiration for the character Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes. Yup. Reno Sweeney was a real person. And Anything Goes honestly doesn’t really exaggerate much.
As someone who grew up in Los Angeles, and was raised (at least during her preteen/teen years) in a Four Square Church (yup – most people haven’t heard of that either,) I’ve pretty much known who “Sister Aimee” and Angelus Temple were my whole life. Aimee Semple McPherson was a controversial figure who came to prominence in the 1920’s and ‘30’s. The legacy she left behind however literally changed thousands of lives, and the face of Christianity for the better. She was one of the first female preachers – ever. She used elements of the entertainment industry, such as spectacle, song, dance, and pageantry – things that many Christians deemed blasphemous, and demonic - to draw the public – including many who were not religious – into church, and as demonstrations of her sermon lessons (or even as the sermons themselves.) Her revival meetings were not considered services so much as performances. She became hugely famous – becoming good friends with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, and William Randolf Hearst. She built the largest church in all of Los Angeles, and became very wealthy. She was at the center of a scandal that rocked America when she was accused of staging her own kidnapping, allowing her to have a secret “vacation” with her married lover, in order to gain even more publicity. And she changed the lives of thousands and thousands of people – giving women a way out of living lives of prostitution, taking in dozens of unwed mothers who had been abandoned by their families, and gave hope and faith to an entire generation. Fame seeking manipulator? Or set-upon Saint? In either case, one great story for a musical.
The 2011-2012 Broadway season has been dubbed the “Faith on Broadway” season. With shows such as Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Leap of Faith treading the boards, this year has heralded more musicals dealing with not just faith, but Christianity then we have ever seen in one season. At least in recent Broadway history. The fact that none of these shows performed very well at the box office seemed to be almost certain poison for Scandalous - the last in line to open. The truth is I think the lack of success of these “faith” musicals had little to do with their “faith” content. With the exception of Godspell (which some will fight me on, but I thought was a truly brilliant revival. Yes, I was a member of the People of Godspell – but I believe that’s a testament to my belief in the revival. Not the other way around) I just don’t think many of the shows were terribly good. On the merits of structure and/or storytelling.
The difficulty with telling “religious” stories is that no matter how you slice it, one of your most important characters isn’t really a character. At least not a human being like all the other people in the show. How do you portray a person having a religious experience? How do you portray a person hearing from God? There are only two options. The first is to personify that experience – that voice a person hears, as a person. To make “God” a character that can literally walk around onstage and interact with the other characters. Stephen Schwartz’s musical Children of Eden is a good and, I believe, successful example of this option. In My Life is a less effective example. Though this option most easily resolves the “hearing from God” issues, it poses many other challenges, which is why it is perhaps less often used then option two: beautiful lights that pour over our protagonist as music swells and we observe, from the outside, the main character having a “life changing religious experience.”
This second option is the one taken by both Leap of Faith and Scandalous and, while it does its job as a storytelling device, it also keeps the audience at a distance, never really allowing us to experience the story along with the characters, but rather forces us to intellectually analyze their actions, thoughts, and feelings. After all – using this device, the main character has a revelation. Not the audience.
Scandalous tells Aimee’s story as if it were being performed for us as one of her religious pageants. A device that was similarly used in Leap of Faith (and even, in a different context Catch Me If You Can.) But is much more effective in that the first people we hear from are not Aimee and her congregation, but rather the other people in Aimee’s life – including her detractors. This affords us a luxury we did not have in Leap of Faith – we are allowed to believe the opinions of EVERYONE we hear from during the course of the show. After our introduction to Aimee we flash back to Aimee’s birth, and proceed to watch her life unfold literally from birth to death. Quite a challenge to undertake, but somewhat necessary in order for us to understand the thematic story being told. And that theme, thankfully, is crystal clear, and is one of the saving graces of the show: no sinner is beyond redemption, and no saint is without sin. It is a theme I have yet to see really tackled in the commercial theater, and it is a very difficult theme to communicate effectively. Scandalous may not communicate it in a deeply moving way, but it does communicate it, and for that it deserves much praise.
The other saving grace of the show is its star Carolee Carmello. I doubt that comes as a surprise to anyone, but it’s important to state none the less. Ms. Carmello takes Aimee from seventeen to fifty, and does it brilliantly. I have rarely seen a teenager portrayed with such emotional accuracy – including by actual teenagers. She’s a farm girl Jo March who rages at God, longs for anything theatrical, and has not yet had her strength, courage, and purity tested by life. Scandalous will take her through three marriages – one to her true love Robert Semple who introduced Aimee to the revivalist preaching that would change her life, and died a few months after their wedding, leaving Aimee pregnant with all but no future (this was still before 1920.) One a marriage of convenience – to Harold McPherson – who gave Aimee a second child, and was quickly abandoned when, after a near death experience Aimee declared that God had called her to leave her home and spread the Gospel. And one to David Hutton – a gorgeous, manipulative man ten years her junior who would ultimately become just one more scandal in Aimee’s infamous life. Ms. Carmello has lungs of steel, and indeed, it seemed that every other number in the show was a park-and-bark showstopper for her. The fact that I didn’t mind was a testament to Ms. Carmello. In terms of the writing, many of the songs began to blur together.
The book, lyrics, and music are quite serviceable. For me the stand out songs were Aimee’s lovely “I Want” song “Why Can’t I,” and “A Girl’s Gotta Do What A Girl’s Gotta Do” – which for me was exemplar of all the things the show does right. This number was part of a musical sequence where Aimee is exposed to “worldly” entertainment (such as a film of “Salome” and, as is the case with “A Girl’s Gotta Do…” a (ahem) brothel) that are attracting far more patrons then her revival meetings. Instead of being horrified, she realizes that she can use some of these entertainment elements as a preaching device. No, not prostitutes themselves - but hey, this is a musical, and their dancing rocks! After all, King David danced scantily clad before the Lord – why shouldn’t we?! This is the number where Aimee embraces what will become her motto: “Get em in the seats and slip God in when they’re not looking.” In “A Girl’s Gotta Do…” Aimee visits a brothel to invite the prostitutes to her revival meeting. During the course of the scene we witness Aimee’s great effect on the girls she encounters – who have never had someone approach them as equals, without judgment, and suddenly realize that their lives can be redeemed. We also witness a rousing “song and dance” number that (gasp) actually uses dance as a storytelling device. Seriously. Take dance out of this number and the plot would not be moved forward. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve witnessed that in an original musical in the last decade. The choreography in this number is lovely (kudos to choreographer Lorin Latarro) and one ensemble member (I believe it was Betsy Struxness) really stood out. Seriously, what gorgeous technique.
Edward Watts plays Aimee’s first and third husbands – and they could not be more different. I honestly didn’t realize the same actor played both roles until the curtain call when I started wondering why that wonderful actor who played Robert Semple wasn’t taking his bow. He is an extraordinary actor. Roz Ryan is also a huge stand out as Emma Jo Schaeffer – the Madame of the brothel Aimee visits who ends up being saved, and becoming Aimee’s right hand woman and moral conscience.
The scenic design did a lovely job of recreating the architecture of Aimee’s famous Los Angeles church – however the stars of the set design were the beautiful backdrops used in act one that looked like they belonged in the world of experimental art created by the Walt Disney Company in the early 1930’s - 1950’s (think the stunning, revolutionary work of Sleeping Beauty, or their A Cowboy Needs A Horse animated short.) And I greatly enjoyed the way they literally converted the theater into a tent toward the end of act one – using a scenic device I personally haven’t seen before on a Broadway stage. Beautiful work by Walt Spangler. The costumes by Gregory A. Poplyk were lovely, and Natasha Katz’s lighting was smart and effective.
Although the show definitely does touch on the pageantry of Aimee’s services, one can’t help feeling that there was a missed opportunity in the briefness of these moments. Reno Sweeney’s “Blow Gabriel Blow” or “Heaven Hop” would have been welcome additions – especially with the benefit of an entire ensemble in full pageant regalia. And I was also left wondering why we never saw (or heard) hide nor hair from either of Aimee’s children.
Is Scandalous a perfect musical? No. Is it worth checking out? Absolutely. As my friend who saw the show with me said as we were leaving the theater: “There’s much that’s praiseworthy in it.” Amen to that.
Neil Simon Theater : 250 West 52nd Street