'Saving Aimee': Musical considers famed evangelist's life
"Saving Aimee," the revised Kathie Lee Gifford musical playing at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, offers an over-reverential portrait of famed evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.
Seattle Times theater critic
'Saving Aimee'Runs through Oct. 29 at 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle (206-625-1900 or www.5thavenue.org).
Theater review |
Was she a woman of God, or just a helluva woman?
The question is raised at the finale of "Saving Aimee," a musical about the first mass-media celebrity evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson.
This glossy, well-researched but overly reverential bio-show doesn't offer much of an answer beyond "maybe some of both." It's now at the 5th Avenue Theatre in a revised version.
With book and lyrics by TV personality and author Kathie Lee Gifford and music by Gifford, David Pomeranz and David Friedman, "Saving Aimee" settles one thing: Broadway actress Carolee Carmello is a helluva performer.
Carmello convincingly plays McPherson from her farm-girl teens into her mid-30s (when, in 1926, she was put on trial for faking her own kidnapping).
An incandescent, charismatic presence in Aimee's glowing white robes, Carmello also displays her dazzling vocal range and lung power in several power-ballads.
David Armstrong has Carmello minister to us from center stage, and dramatically on a towering staircase, in his vivid direction of the show on Walt Spangler's impressive tabernacle set.
But there's a want of grit and complexity in this portrait of one of the most flamboyant publicity hounds in American religion. The show takes McPherson at face value, and largely on faith.
After a rousing gospel opener ("Stand Up!"), the bloated first act earnestly recounts Aimee's soapy backstory — her marriage to a missionary (terrific Ed Watts), her depressed widowhood, her dreary second marriage to an accountant (solid Brandon O'Neill).
One day at the ironing board, Aimee hears God tell her to hit the road and spread the gospel (an attractive alternative to wifely drudgery).
In the more entertaining Act 2, "Saving Aimee" picks up the pace, gains a bit of irony (a la "Chicago"), and taps Gifford's flair for comedy.
In a "Mame"-like number, tabloid reporters trumpet Aimee's wildfire success, capped off by the building of her L.A. megachurch. Showbizzy bible pageants provide some campy humor. A third marriage triggers a nicely saucy, '20s-style tune, "This Time I'll Blame It on Love."
Roz Ryan, in the stock role of a sassy factotum, interjects zingers. Minnie (Judy Kaye), Aimee's smugly pious mother, warms up a touch.
But as Aimee hobnobs in Tinsel Town, creates her own radio network and increases her flock, she's a curiously passive, almost sedate figure — an innocent sins just happen to.
Yes, she's seen as a female mogul ahead of her time. But the contradictions in her ultraconservative religious beliefs and her cultlike empire are barely grazed, as is the social climate that fueled her ministry.
Despite the trial framing device, the show oddly doesn't venture its own version of Aimee's famous disappearance (and alleged kidnapping). The evangelist simply wonders, after blackmailing herself out of the jam, how did it all go wrong?
Well, how did it? That interesting question may deserve a musical of its own.
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