Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson, the musical adaptation of the life of Hollywood’s celebrity evangelist of the 1920s, may not have a firm grasp on whether its subject was a heroically crusading woman of God or a hypocritical mountebank, but one thing’s for certain: She sure was a grand ol’ gal!
That seems to be the main theme of Kathie Lee Gifford’s script, and it works in part. The songs (by David Pomeranz and David Friedman, with lyrics by Gifford) provide emotional and plot development that help keep the story moving at a quick clip — they’re fun and functional, even if there isn’t really an earworm among them. David Armstrong’s direction flows effortlessly from one episode in McPherson’s life to the next with minimal hiccups, and Carolee Carmello gives a charismatic performance in the lead, belting out her numbers like a one-woman church choir.
Unfortunately, the storytelling is too democratic. The first half of the show deals mainly with McPherson’s life before her ministry hit it big, frontloading the production with a minimally interesting origin story instead of delving headlong into the fascinating tangle of her Hollywood years. In the 1920s, McPherson put down roots in Los Angeles, building the Angelus Temple where she would attract thousands of congregants with inventive church services that melded the fervent beliefs of Pentecostalism with the razzle-dazzle showmanship endemic to her adopted city. She rubbed elbows with Charlie Chaplin and William Randolph Hearst, and eventually her sermons were being broadcast via radio from coast to coast.
The scandal of the title is given surprisingly short shrift — it’s all over in a song or two and few of its implications are explored beyond the surface. In 1926, McPherson went missing for more than a month, only to appear in a Mexican border town claiming to have been kidnapped. Her story was full of holes — and many believed it was just a cover-up for time spent with her married radio engineer, played by Andrew Samonsky. But the resulting trial was a railroading, goaded on by many who opposed her attempts to reach across racial and gender barriers. It’s a complex story filled with a lot of knotty issues, but much of the nuance gets glossed over in this production, overstuffed as it is with other, less fascinating anecdotes, like a lengthy introductory sequence about her early life as a Canadian farm girl. Still, Scandalous has enough high energy and witty lines to help to atone for some of its sins. B?
(Tickets: Ticketmaster.com or 877-250-2929)