Hurricanes, cancelled press performances when the star was placed on vocal rest, and other acts of God kept me from seeing Scandalous (Neil Simon Theatre) until a week after its official opening, by which time its failure to please much of the press was a certified matter, made obvious by clusters of empty seats at the matinee I finally attended. If I were of an evangelical turn of mind, I might claim that God had been doing His best to spare me this performance, and that enduring it was my just punishment for failing to heed His warnings.
But I am both more rational than that, and less easily tormented by bad theater—which, after decades of experience, now rolls past me as easily as water off a duck’s back. So I found Scandalous no more painful than your typical just-below-mediocre new musical, a category of which we’ve been seeing many examples in recent years.
Scandalous in fact strives eagerly to emulate some of its predecessors in the sub-med department. Its story, though based on the life of the 1920s evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (Carolee Carmello), shows signs of familiarity with last year’s unhappiness, Leap of Faith, and a sizeable segment of its action deals, like that of Broadway’s other current mishap, Chaplin, with the silent film comedian’s problematic behavior, and with the unrelenting spite of a gossip columnist—this time Louella Parsons, in lieu of Chaplin’s Hedda Hopper. (Both shows ought to have split the difference, as George S. Kaufman did in his 1938 Hollywood Pinafore, and named the character Louhedda Hopsons.) For good measure, there’s even a newspaper-publishing magnate who has it in for Sister Aimee, William Randolph Hearst, standing in for Newsies’s villainous Joseph Pulitzer.
The historical McPherson (1890-1944) was a striking figure, who did more than merely jump a variety of sharks in order to make headlines; and Carmello is a striking performer, gifted with a supple technique, a broad emotional range, and an enormous amount of vocal power. Plus Scandalous has, at least desultorily, an idea of how it wants us to perceive its central character: as a woman with a genuine spiritual mission and an equally genuine temptation to backslide from it, exploiting, for her own pleasure and profit, the success she achieves brings her—a sinner whose lapses history can forgive because of the good she did. (As has been much noted, evangelical institutions are among the show’s financial backers.)
What Scandalous lacks, unfortunately for its meager but patient audience, is the imagination or taste to make any effective use of these potentially powerful assets. Kathie Lee Gifford’s book simply bounces its heroine from one milestone, positive or negative, to the next. Instead of offering her any shading or depth, it simply has her switch from piety to flippancy and back again, making her seem equally phony in both modes. It says something about Gifford’s notion of religion that, in an epilogue, we’re told the high price paid for Sister Aimee’s radio station six decades after her death as an instance of her spiritual achievements.
Directed by David Armstrong with a glum efficiency that rarely allows the actors to sound more than one note per role, and choreographed by Lorin Latarro with no apparent aim beyond space-filling motion, the show chugs through Sister Aimee’s career without ever supplying a clue as to why we might want to pay attention.
Instead, the creative team leaves all the attention-getting to Carmello, whom the production overworks so mercilessly that her failure to collapse from exhaustion becomes the evening’s one dramatic surprise. Though she’s too skillful a performer to show the effort involved, she’s also not one of those magical artists who can make anything they do, including a marathon like this, seem tossed off lightly. Her gift is to root her every action in reality, which she does here from start to finish; the result may leave you exhausted instead , not from empathy with her elegantly concealed exertions, but from having the weight of all that reality piled up before you.
Carmello, and her colleagues, get exceptional hindrance from an ear-crippling noise level that has to be ascribed either to Armstrong’s, or to the producers’, apparently total lack of musical sensitivity. We live in a paradoxical time for musical theater. Most of our singing actors are musically skilled and wonderfully well-trained. The musicians who interact with them— conductors, orchestrators, vocal arrangers, pit players—are mostly astute and, if anything, overqualified for their tasks.
Even sound designers, whose fondness for one or another type of aural result can be problematic, usually have both the know-how and the pliability to reshape their work as requested. So the blame for the overamplified blare, shrieked top notes, and tinny, crash-bang accompaniments that afflict far too many Broadway musicals has to be laid at the feet of their producers—who, these days, are likely to know a great deal more about money than about music. (Armstrong, himself a co-producer of Scandalous as well as its director, is principally known as executive producer of Seattle’s Fifth Avenue Theatre, which primarily develops new musicals and is also one of the show’s co-producers.)
Whoever’s responsible for the show’s essential unmusicality, Carmello bears its primary burden, called upon as she is to give one of those I-will-survive all-out vocal finishes to nearly every number in which she’s involved. Though she has the taste to refrain from aggressive audience-wooing, the net effect is still to make Sister Aimee seem less a woman driven by complex inner needs than a desperately needy washed-up pop star attempting a comeback. (McPherson is credited with additional music, but the show offers little clue to what the singing at her services actually sounded like; the show’s sense of period is almost nil.)
Less weighed down by the creators’ ill-conceived demands, some of Carmello’s colleagues fare better. George Hearn plays Aimee’s put-upon father with charmingly weary patience, and holds his own effectively as one of her truculent opponents in L.A. Candy Buckley, essentially restricted by the role of Aimee’s carping mother to one harsh note, still manages to give it some shading. Edward Watts and Andrew Samonsky, cast in two roles apiece as various husbands and wooers of the charismatic heroine, supply a variety and distinction that entitle them to roles in much better musicals.
And then there’s Roz Ryan, playing the whorehouse madam who’s saved by Sister Aimee and goes on to become a character annoyingly inevitable these days: the white heroine’s black best friend and general factotum, furnishing worldly wisdom, spicy humor, mystical devotion, and up-tempo singing. Ryan, who handles its every cliched moment with genuine feeling, good humor, and flair, deserves a medal. She doesn’t even fuss over the inadequate script, getting her biggest laugh on a vocalized pause. When I want to make money in the theater, I will write out a grocery list and hire Roz Ryan to recite it onstage. She could probably get enough laughs from that grocery list to keep us sold out for at least six months—more time, I suspect, than she and her colleagues will be spending on Broadway in Scandalous.