Scandalous, Neil Simon Theatre, New York

The new Broadway musical Scandalous is a sprightly, predictably structured telling of the life of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. We trek from her childhood on a Canadian farm through her two marriages and onward to her career, first struggling and peripatetic, then successful and Hollywood-based in the 1920s. The music, primarily by David Pomeranz and David Friedman, and the book and lyrics, by US TV personality Kathie Lee Gifford, strive to present the church, particularly in its more unbuttoned Protestant forms, as the higher branch of showbiz. Much effort has gone into this Broadway enterprise.

Neither a must-see juicy disaster (that might have required Gifford herself to inhabit the primary role) nor a surprising, damn-the-critics success, Scandalous features a tremendously hard-working ensemble and a tremendously hard-working star: Carolee Carmello, as Aimee. Walt Spangler’s diamond-shard Art Deco set glitters, David Armstrong directs with some flair, and I have never seen such a display of hallelujah hands outside a gospel church service.

I had assumed that the show was called Scandalous because of McPherson’s appetite for men. This is, after all, a woman of whom Bette Davis, who played Aimee’s mother opposite Faye Dunaway in a 1976 television movie, said: “She was nothing but a whore. She made Joan Crawford look like Mary Poppins.” Yet for most of the first act, I could detect not a whiff of Aimee’s naughtiness. The scandal lies in the fact that Aimee is a woman preacher who has left her husband at home while she caravans through the American heartland.

Even when we reach the second act, in which Aimee founds the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles and conducts circus-like services, the emphasis is on the positive. The songs combine inspirational uplift and pop-ballad heartache, with an occasional detour into Irish lilt. The lyrics are singsong. Aimee, ultimately, is a just good woman who made a mistake or two. She has a stern mother, portrayed by Candy Buckley, and a faithful, African-American retainer, given requisite sass by Roz Ryan.

Absent only is much evidence of the woman who inspired major characters in novels by Sinclair Lewis and Nathanael West, not to mention Mrs Melrose Ape in Waugh’s Vile Bodies. There’s nothing very vile in Scandalous. Alas.

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