Kathie Lee Gifford's Leap of Faith

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"It's about faith, but it's not about religion," Kathie Lee Gifford says of her new musical about early-20th-century evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. "Saving Aimee," with book and lyrics by Gifford and music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman, is having its world premiere at Signature Theatre through May 13.

The play is no more about religion "than 'The Sound of Music' is about the Catholic Church," says Gifford, who has been fascinated for 35 years and "obsessed" for the past eight by McPherson. A controversial, even scandalous figure in her time, the freethinking, feminist-minded Pentecostal preacher drew big crowds and bigger headlines with multiple marriages, emotional breakdowns, a sensational perjury trial, accounts of her mass "healings" and tales of being abducted.

"This woman has fallen through the cracks of history. She deserves to have her story told fairly," says Gifford, who grew up in Annapolis and Bowie and discovered theater at the Shady Grove Music Fair. Gifford, a former daytime TV star, singer and celebrity who has had her share of unflattering publicity -- false "garbage," she calls it -- knows the cost of fame, and examines it in the song "Payin' the Price." McPherson was "the very first tabloid queen," Gifford says.

Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer has been working with Gifford on the show for about five years, through rewrites and workshops. "I think we've done it smart because we waited until it was ready," he says. Neither he nor Gifford wanted the audience "to feel like they're getting preached at," so the script contains little Scripture and doesn't even mention the name of Jesus. He agrees the musical "isn't about religion. It's about this woman [on a] mission to break the rules."

Carolee Carmello, on a leave of absence from her lead role in "Mamma Mia!" on Broadway to play Aimee, sees the story as being "about trying to do some good in the world, despite your inadequacies. . . . [McPherson] wanted to help people on a huge scale."

Carmello starred in the workshop production in 2005 in White Plains, N.Y., and agreed to take on the role only after Schaeffer and Gifford promised she would play McPherson as both a teenager and a middle-aged woman. The show was written for two actresses but Carmello wanted the challenge: "It's great to go from 17 to 54, ups and downs, in and out of insane asylums. . . . It's like an actress's dream come true."

For Gifford, "Saving Aimee" surely has been a leap of faith and fancy. But she reveals little taste for the conservative, born-again religion that many seem to believe she embodies.

"I'm a deeply spiritual person, but I am very uncomfortable around religiosity," she says, calling herself "a very bad Christian. I am a follower of Jesus, but I'm a pretty bad one. I think that's also why I relate so well to Aimee."

Follow Spot

ยท Northern Irish playwright Marie Jones ("Stones in His Pockets") will participate in a discussion after a special free "Peace Cafe" performance of her solo piece "A Night in November" at 7 p.m. Monday at Busboys and Poets (2021 14th St. NW). Marty Maguire performs the story of a Belfast Protestant prompted to purge himself of hatred after a big soccer match between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

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