It’s been a long time coming, but Kathie Lee Gifford’s project about Aimee Semple McPherson, evangelist turned Hollywood celebrity and eventual loose woman, finally makes its way to Broadway with the help of David Pomeranz and David Friedman’s music. It is directed by David Armstrong. The production has boundless monologues and preaching and the one thing that makes it palatable is Carolee Carmello, who brings a star quality performance to the Neil Simon Theatre.
Aimee, the child of a religious fundamentalist mother, the stern pragmatic Minnie Kennedy (Candy Buckley) and more realistic father James (George Hearn), finds herself attracted to the stage as a youngster, fighting her mother all the way hearing that theater is blasphemy – even Shakespeare. While in high school she attends a Pentacostal Holy Rollers meeting, falling head over heels with the Reverend Robert Semple (good looking, great singing Edward Watts), they eventually wed, against her mother’s wishes and, Aimee pregnant, they set off to China in the 1920s to sermonize. Their happiness is short-lived when Robert dies of malaria. Finding God, Aimee is now fully immersed in preaching and soon establishes her own travelling ministry. Along the way she encounters a brothel where she meets Emma Jo and her ladies and a bawdy “A Girl’s Gotta Do What a Girl’s Gotta Do” ensues. She succeeds in converting Emma Jo (Roz Ryan), who gives a highlight performance, and becomes her disciple giving up her wayward life to travel with Aimee.
A second marriage ensues to Harold McPherson (a passing figure) and Aimee winds up with her own ministry in Hollywood, where she has an affair with the star of one of her themed Holy Roller meetings David Hutton, (once again played deliciously by Edward Watts, now a blonde) as he cavorts shirtless and pant-less through Bible passages in a humorous “Adam and Eve” segment, as “Moses and Pharaoh” and in “Samson and Delilah” that now includes Aimee in a somewhat revealing costume as her morals begin to decay. Her downward spiral continues as she pops pills and takes on her next lover, the married radio station technician Kenneth Ormiston (Andrew Samonsky) continuing to preach to the masses via her own radio station, accruing millions of listeners and followers. This is a blistering wound to the local preacher Brother Bob (also George Hearn) who is ready to do battle with her methods and because she is a woman. She winds up faking her own disappearance and at the age of 54 dies.
Carmello easily morphs from 17 year old girl to woman, never losing a beat, her vocal nuances solid as a rock and the force that makes this 2 ½ hour production somewhat doable. However, the bottom line is that there isn’t much after you hear Carmello’s glorious voice as the jokes fall flat as does much of the music and trite lyrics. There are good supporting performances by Elizabeth Ward Land as Louella Parsons and Sam Strasfeld as William Randolph Hearst.
One of the more recent evangelist-themed musicals that didn’t make it was “Leap of Faith” and that had a lot of toe-tappers and upbeat music.
Without a doubt, Aimee Semple McPherson was an adventurer with a mission who pursued her calling at a time when it was difficult for women, especially in her chosen profession. She has an interesting life story and perhaps it would have been better served as a straight play.
Joel Fram choreographs and Walt Spangler has designed the heavenly stairway, with costumes by Gregory A. Poplyk, lighting by Natasha Katz.