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The previous Broadway season was lousy with religion-themed musicals: Sister Act, Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar and Leap of Faith—each peddled its own brand of showbiz theology. All closed; some were scourged out of town, an indication that God was dead on the Great White Way. Now comes morning-show babbler Kathie Lee Gifford to resurrect the corpse with her manic, grating paean to the life and work of Aimee Semple McPherson (1890–1944). Scandalous is a CliffsNotes take on the 20th-century evangelist, a trinity of camp, kitsch and middlebrow morality that, through uncritical worship, makes its hero the least interesting person onstage—despite throat-shredding vocal pyrotechnics.
I have seen worse shows than Scandalous (Good Vibrations and The Pirate Queen were more painful to sit through), but few as wild-eyed and zealously wrongheaded. Carolee Carmello’s strident, belt-first-ask-questions-later approach to McPherson leaves very little room for subtlety or growth. We follow the evangelist from a repressive childhood in Canada (she loves Shakespeare; Mom thumps the Bible) through early, failed attempts to preach on street corners to her evolution into the head of a media-savvy evangelism empire.
McPherson gains celebrity and riches through her theatrical adaptations of Scripture at her glittering Angelus Temple in Hollywood (Walt Spangeler’s white, spire-filled set bizarrely evokes Superman’s Fortress of Solitude). In the second act we see our heroine’s predictable descent into pills, loveless affairs and a mysterious disappearance, but none of it enriches her spiritual mission or our connection to the character. Andrew Samonsky and Edward Watts are admirably understated as two romances in McPherson’s life.
What book writer (and lyricist and contributing composer) Gifford fails to evoke is the larger cultural void McPherson filled between the world wars, as well as the steps by which her career took off. In lieu of narrative meat, we get one brassy, overdone number after another, strung along on clunky “next I did this, then I did that” narration. David Pomeranz and David Friedman’s score is a facile pastiche of gospel, jazz and show tunes further weakened by Gifford’s flat, often corny lyrics (she dares to rhyme “piety” and “religiosity,” not to mention “people” and “steeple”).
Scandalous ends essentially as an advertisement for McPherson’s Foursquare Church, whose foundation is one of the show’s producers. Such brazen commercialism, mixed with treacly faith-mongering, turns out to be the show’s most honest moment.—David Cote
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote