Give me that old-time religion, then give me the old razzle dazzle, then give me a Waring blender — and voila! it's Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson, which, 12 years aborning, was delivered Nov. 15 at the Neil Simon.
It is not based on The Book of David, although it could have been, since it's directed by David Armstrong and composed by David Pomeranz and David Friedman.
No, this is The Gospel According to Gifford — Kathie Lee Gifford, who did the lyrics and the earnest, broad-stroked musical book which traces the chaotically contradictory career of that Bible-thumping superstar who threw theatrical thunderbolts from the pulpit and sinned some on the side. Actually, she seems to have sinned a lot — to see the tabloids of the times that pursued her to an early grave from an accidental [or not] overdose of barbiturates. She was buried on her 54th birthday, leaving behind the colorful wreckage of a life lived to the max in overdrive.
Scandalous inspects her damage in flashback, starting — a la "Lawrence of Arabia" — with widely diverse takes on the deceased being expressed and then everyone getting proven right in the retelling. What follows is an overwhelmingly well-researched book that touches many bases, but such was the pull of Sister Aimee.
The extra drama attending the show's opening might make you think Aimee Semple McPherson, who knew how to pump up the volume before it was fashionable, was personally stirring the cauldron and stage-managing it all from On High.
Two days before the opening, and after seven years of perfecting this role, Carolee Carmello found her voice suddenly deserting her and was placed on immediate vocal rest, cancelling both Wednesday performances and making the opening iffy.
Whether you believe in miracles or medication or Carmello del arte, she came through with flying colors. Forget the Tony committee — let's head straight for The Vatican with our Carolee-for-Saint placards. Vocally, the role is rangy and difficult, and she must age from teens to middle-age and hit all the emotions required for accumulating spouses and lovers while still maintaining professional religious zeal.
Carmello went full-throttle for all of the above, checking them off with bold, decisive strokes. Plus, she maintained a clean stage: When a revival-tent canvas dropped at the end of the first act and got tangled in the orchestra pit, she went over and tugged it free, lest the finale be spoiled. It got her extra applause and the appreciation of all.
"We've had problems with that doggone tent for two weeks," Gifford later said. "I'm just surprised she doesn't roll it up and carry it out on her back. She could do it, too."
Carmello's last gracious, and most winning, gesture of the night: halting her own tumultuous applause and saluting the show's four creators in the audience who were making their Broadway debuts that evening — the three Davids and Kathie Lee.
It was her last words of the night. When she arrived at the Copacabana after-party for the photo shoot, the publicist escorting her told the press: "She's not talking."
I frantically broke into my best sign language. She smiled and came over to give me a kiss, and I whispered in her ear, "You were heroic." And she was.
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