By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Holy spark plug! Carolee Carmello provides the kind of ignition that's needed for "Saving Aimee," the frustratingly guileless musical about the life of the pioneer radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson that's receiving its world premiere at Signature Theatre.
Carmello sings the role of the troubled McPherson as if spiritual fervor had a vocal range. Her instrument adds meaning to the name of the performance space in which it's being heard: the Max. She indeed plays the title character to the hilt, and when she activates her powerful lungs, oxygen reconfirms its property as something flammable.
The energy Carmello generates is a surefire match for the wild intensity of a woman who back in the '20s kept the public guessing: Was she healer or huckster? Were her lavish tent revivals manifestations of pious or showbiz values? And was her 1926 claim to have been kidnapped on a California beach a cover-up of tawdrier shenanigans?
"Saving Aimee" delves into all those topics. But only superficially. The musical is so intent on a careful chronological regurgitation of McPherson's bizarre life that we're never given a compelling point of view. We start with the portrait of an enigmatic woman, and after two acts and 25 numbers, that's about all we get in the way of enlightenment.
You may have heard that the book and lyrics of "Saving Aimee" are by the entertainer and former "Regis" sidekick Kathie Lee Gifford, who here has collaborated with composers David Pomeranz and David Friedman and Signature artistic director Eric Schaeffer. What they've made of "Saving Aimee" is opaque and uninvolving. The characters -- McPherson's husbands, children, parents, friends, enemies and followers -- parade insubstantially across the stage, as if mere singing shadows on a newsreel.
McPherson was a sensation, a woman with an innate sense of showmanship and a gift for raising the hopes of the dispossessed. Her rise from the ranks of itinerant Holy Rollers to shepherd of a Los Angeles mega-church and an influential electronic pulpit prefigured wave upon wave of televangelists. Her inordinately messed-up private life -- culminating in the media circus attending her trial on charges that she manufactured the kidnapping -- made her fodder for the tabloids and the harsher spotlight she seemed to crave and revile.
In "Saving Aimee," it seems, Gifford and her co-creators are too much in McPherson's thrall themselves. There's no real challenging of her motives -- except by a hypocritical competing preacher (Ed Dixon) whose own morals are of a decidedly scandalous variety. Instead of an examination of McPherson's cultural impact, or even of her colorful appetites, we get the prim story of her inner conflict, between God and domesticity. The oft-reprised song about this struggle -- "Why Can't I Just Be a Woman?" -- becomes a character-defining anthem. And long before Aimee marries and dumps her third (or is it her fourth?) husband, you begin to wonder if there aren't more interesting questions this musical could ask.
Gifford, who has spoken often about her own spirituality, certainly has done her homework. The show begins in McPherson's adolescence, under the oppressive eye of her rabidly religious mother, played by Florence Lacey. At this impressionable stage, McPherson falls under the spell of the Pentecostal preacher (Steve Wilson) who not only will be her first husband, but also will give her a taste of the pulpit's power.
Interspersed with the stories of her marital problems and progress as a faith healer are fast-forward glimpses of the DA (Andrew Long) who prosecutes her in the alleged kidnapping hoax. The musical charts her exoneration at the trial as a triumph. But it's a hollow climax, especially in light of the epilogue's disclosure that McPherson died of an overdose of barbiturates at 53.
Characteristically, Schaeffer applies a polished sheen. Walt Spangler's efficient, unvarnished set is a two-tiered, wood-covered structure, navigated on a pair of movable staircases; designer Chris Lee lights the walls in brilliant violets and tangerines. Bruce Coughlin's orchestrations give the musical a robust sound, and Signature's decision to amplify singers' voices is an understandable surrender to the demands of complete audibility.
The songs are lively, too, even if they're dropped in at predictable intervals. Lacey commendably delivers the title song, and E. Faye Butler, in the rather hackneyed part of the bighearted hooker, puts to pleasing use the rousing brothel number, "A Girl's Gotta Do What a Girl's Gotta Do."
Wilson and Adam Monley divvy up the duties of playing McPherson's husbands and lovers. In keeping with the thankless nature of these responsibilities, the characters come to seem interchangeable, although Wilson is called upon, in a sequence of Bible reenactment numbers, to wear a costume skimpier than those worn by the ladies of the evening.
Carmello, who is familiar to Broadway audiences, due in part to her Tony nominations for the short-lived "Parade" and "Lestat," invests in McPherson her customary magnitude of verve and belief. She comes as close to the hysterical ardor of the character as the show allows.
Ablaze at center stage, the actress seems to be the source of light herself. If only "Saving Aimee" could illuminate something as powerfully on its own.
Saving Aimee, book and lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford, music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Costumes, Anne Kennedy; projections, Michael Clark; sound, Robert Kaplowitz; musical director, Michael Rice; choreography, Christopher d'Amboise. With Michael Brannigan, Corrieanne Stein, Harry A. Winter. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through May 13 at Signature Theatre, 2800 S. Stafford St., Arlington. Call 800-955-5566 or visit http://www.signature-theatre.org.