When you think of evangelists, the mind usually turns to Southern, silver-tongued devils in the Jimmy Swaggart mold. You don’t think beautiful, bobbed auburn hair. Yet, in the early decades of the 20th century there existed a glamorous female preacher more famous than them all — Aimee Semple McPherson.
McPherson was one of the first media-savvy miracle workers, pioneering radio evangelism (and paving the way for televangelism) and the idea of religious service as spectacle. Her Los Angeles-based church was like a movie palace for the spirit. She provided inspirational entertainment — not just for the pillars of the community but for drunks, prostitutes and sinners, as well as all ethnicities and economic classes — with her Cecil B. DeMille-worthy tableaux, choir performances, and lavishly staged sermons.
Her soul belonged to God, but her body was built for sin: Thrice-married and prone later in life to affairs with comely male co-workers, McPherson knew 10 ways to break a commandment.
Even though scandals rocked her religious empire, she never thought sinning and preaching to be mutually exclusive activities. She began spreading the Gospel at age 17, and the only thing that finally stopped her was a barbiturate overdose in 1944 at 53. More than 60,000 mourners attended her viewing.
Aimee Semple McPherson’s flamboyance and fervor make her rich fodder for a musical. Passion for the subject matter is certainly evident in “Saving Aimee,” a world premiere musical with book and lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford and music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman.
Set in a Los Angeles courtroom in the 1930s where Miss McPherson (Carolee Carmello) defends herself against charges of fraud lobbed by a hard-charging lawyer (Andrew Long), “Saving Aimee” details the evangelist’s life with the sweep of a religious pageant. For all its pomp and full-throttle vocals, the look of the production is as plain as a storefront church: Walt Spangler’s set design is a simple, wood barn-like structure with a loft and rolling staircase, while Anne Kennedy’s costumes reflect the angular, earth-toned elegance of 1920s and 30s fashion.
An almost Pentecostal fire roars through this production, directed by Eric Schaeffer, beginning with the feverish, gripping lead performance. As Aimee, Carolee Carmello’s dramatic, resonant voice brings heft to some lyrics that you could kindly describe as slight. With her fine-boned beauty and unflagging conviction, Miss Carmello seems to be lit from within. She gives the character of Aimee Semple McPherson a larger-than-life bravura that is not, alas, matched by the modest musical score and lyrics.
Most of the musical numbers are amped up to bombast levels, and there is an infectious, raise-the-roof energy to the gospelly opening song “Stand Up!” and the other engineered rousers “For Such a Time as This” and “Follow Me!” The cast nearly coughs up a collective lung trying to sing and dance their way around a score that manages to be derivative, repetitive, and unmemorable. The musical’s flaws are most evident in the slower songs, although “He Will be My Home” and “The Silent, Sorrowful Shadows” convey a plaintive yearning.
Even such charismatic pros as E. Faye Butler (playing Emma Jo, a madam turned Aimee’s major-domo) and Florence Lacey (as Aimee’s controlling mother Minnie) flag at times trying to pass off Steak’Ums as chateaubriand. Still, both actresses have shining moments — Miss Butler’s jaded lasciviousness in “A Girl’s Gotta Do What a Girl’s Gotta Do” and Miss Lacey’s pain and concern in the title song, “Saving Aimee.”
Ed Dixon contributes two strong performances, as Aimee’s gently supportive father and a flashy Southern preacher named Brother Bob, as does Steve Wilson in the dual roles of the sexy saint and the back lot sinner who captured Aimee’s heart.
A more sophisticated, nuanced score and lyrics less reminiscent of Sunday school hymns could have been the salvation of “Saving Aimee.” All the show biz razzle-dazzle in the world cannot conceal that as it stands, this musical just has no soul.
WHAT: “Saving Aimee,” book and lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford, music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman
WHERE: Signature Theatre, 2800 S. Stafford St., Arlington
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through May 13.
TICKETS: $37 to $63
PHONE: 800/955 to 5566
WEB SITE: www.signature-theatre.org
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS