PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Scandalous; Saint Carolee
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the opening of the new musical Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson.
Give me that old-time religion, then give me the old razzle dazzle, then give me a Waring blender — and voila! it's Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson, which, 12 years aborning, was delivered Nov. 15 at the Neil Simon.
It is not based on The Book of David, although it could have been, since it's directed by David Armstrong and composed by David Pomeranz and David Friedman.
No, this is The Gospel According to Gifford — Kathie Lee Gifford, who did the lyrics and the earnest, broad-stroked musical book which traces the chaotically contradictory career of that Bible-thumping superstar who threw theatrical thunderbolts from the pulpit and sinned some on the side. Actually, she seems to have sinned a lot — to see the tabloids of the times that pursued her to an early grave from an accidental [or not] overdose of barbiturates. She was buried on her 54th birthday, leaving behind the colorful wreckage of a life lived to the max in overdrive.
Scandalous inspects her damage in flashback, starting — a la "Lawrence of Arabia" — with widely diverse takes on the deceased being expressed and then everyone getting proven right in the retelling. What follows is an overwhelmingly well-researched book that touches many bases, but such was the pull of Sister Aimee.
The extra drama attending the show's opening might make you think Aimee Semple McPherson, who knew how to pump up the volume before it was fashionable, was personally stirring the cauldron and stage-managing it all from On High.
Two days before the opening, and after seven years of perfecting this role, Carolee Carmello found her voice suddenly deserting her and was placed on immediate vocal rest, cancelling both Wednesday performances and making the opening iffy.
Whether you believe in miracles or medication or Carmello del arte, she came through with flying colors. Forget the Tony committee — let's head straight for The Vatican with our Carolee-for-Saint placards. Vocally, the role is rangy and difficult, and she must age from teens to middle-age and hit all the emotions required for accumulating spouses and lovers while still maintaining professional religious zeal.
Carmello went full-throttle for all of the above, checking them off with bold, decisive strokes. Plus, she maintained a clean stage: When a revival-tent canvas dropped at the end of the first act and got tangled in the orchestra pit, she went over and tugged it free, lest the finale be spoiled. It got her extra applause and the appreciation of all.
"We've had problems with that doggone tent for two weeks," Gifford later said. "I'm just surprised she doesn't roll it up and carry it out on her back. She could do it, too."
Carmello's last gracious, and most winning, gesture of the night: halting her own tumultuous applause and saluting the show's four creators in the audience who were making their Broadway debuts that evening — the three Davids and Kathie Lee.
It was her last words of the night. When she arrived at the Copacabana after-party for the photo shoot, the publicist escorting her told the press: "She's not talking."
I frantically broke into my best sign language. She smiled and came over to give me a kiss, and I whispered in her ear, "You were heroic." And she was.
She admitted, after a decade of deep-dish McPherson research, she still had one nagging question: where the evangelist actually was when she dropped off the face of the earth at the height of her celebrity. She returned with the fantastical story she had been chloroformed and kidnapped, but most people suspected she was shacked up in a seedy Mexican village with her married radio engineer, Kenneth Ormiston.
"I still don't know where she was those five weeks, and I care less and less as the years go by," Gifford said. "Y'know, we've all been some place we weren't supposed to be, and that's really what our show's about. We're very, very condemning of one another, but God loves us. God loves what He creates. I love that about Aimee. She didn't judge people, but she was certainly judged herself. She was judged a lot."
The flickering of feminism to be found in McPherson's example was what ignited and fueled Gifford's driving passion for this project. "I think the fact that Aimee did what she did before women even had the vote is what set me off. The 1920s and '30s were such a male-dominated society, and her biggest enemies were the religious people of the day. She didn't care. She was fearless. Every time she fell down, she got back up — and I think that's a great message for today. That last song that she sings — 'What Does It Profit [a Man]?' — every week there's a new person in the newspaper. Now it's David Petraeus. Last week it was Lance Armstrong. The week before that, Arnold Schwarzenegger. You could rip this story from the newspapers today. What does it profit any of us to gain the whole world and lose our soul?"
The vibrant, vital George Hearn brought dignity and authority to the stage in two parts. Given the gray shank of hair and beard he wears as Aimee's sympathetic father, you may think he's Theodore Bikel. "That's right!" Hearn lit up. "I thought it was Hal Holbrook, but it's Theodore Bikel." He also plays, more recognizably, her evangelistic rival in L.A. "They're total opposites and, thus, a lot of fun to play."
He had special praise for his leading lady. "Carolee is just an astounding force. She was really hurting a couple of nights ago, and I felt so badly for her. It happens all the time. I'll tell my wife, 'Aw, I got a sore throat,' and she'll say, 'Well, of course, you do. You're in a Broadway musical, and you're about to open.' It was really a sad, dramatic event for Carolee, but she was determined to go on, and, when that girl's determined, there's no stopping her. I could weep for her. She's a wonderful woman.
"As a consequence of having Carolee and Kathie Lee at the top of the company be so magnanimous, it's a trickle-down theory that actually works. We're all a family."
Candy Buckley, who plays his stiff-collared wife, and Roz Ryan, as the brothel madam recruited to be a girl-Friday, are the key figures shepherding McPherson through her flamboyant ministry. "Kathie has written me the most fabulous character I could ever dream of playing," Ryan gushed. "It's based on a real person, but Kathie didn't want me to research her any. She wanted me to become her as opposed to be her. The person wasn't what you see. She was a little Jewish woman."
Most of Andrew Samonsky's stage time is spent playing what could relatively be called Aimee's truest love, Ormiston. He also does — literally — a wordless walk-on as her second husband, Harold McPherson. "He was a much larger character for the Seattle run, but you gotta decide how much story you can tell so he got the boot and was already cut by the time I got ahold of him," Samonsky said. "I think Aimee really loved him — she really did. After she died, he went to her funeral and was father to her godchildren. I think she wanted to keep McPherson's name for that reason."
Edward Watts plays the husbands on both sides of McPherson. "The biggest thing I like about them is that they're two completely opposite characters," he said. "As a matter of fact, a lot of times people don't realize I play Robert Semple in Act One — the Irish preacher with the dark hair. It happens so often. I don't know if that's sort of a double-edged sword, because maybe they don't recognize it and walk away not knowing. But I love that I get to play such very different characters in the show."
Watts makes a more distinct mark as David Hutton, the blond matinee idol who spends most of Act Two in beefcake mode playing Aimee's Biblical tableaus like Adam and Samson and Moses' Pharoah. "Some day people will not pay me to take my clothes off so, until that day happens, if they want to, I'm game," he reasoned.
He's another Carmello fan. "Carolee is an absolute joy. She's one of those actresses who is with you at all times. There's such immense communication between us when we're working together. She gives you everything. It's so easy to work with her, and it was especially moving tonight for so many reasons, not the least of which was that it was opening night and all of us were so emotional getting into it, but, as most people know, she was out yesterday on vocal rest. For her to come back and give a powerhouse show is extraordinary. She's a rock star. We love her to death."
He found Gifford a delight to work with. "I've spent many hours with Kathie, and the amazing thing is, what you see is exactly who she is every moment of the day. In my living room, in her living room, in the basement of the theatre — that's who she is."
The two music-making Davids — Friedman and Pomeranz — are both on Broadway for the first time in a composing capacity. Friedman authored the AIDS anthem, "Help Is On the Way" ("I always say, 'Writing comes to me, not from me,' so if you think I think 'Help Is On the Way,' you're out of your mind."); he has also conducted on Broadway on numerous occasions. Both have composed for Off-Broadway before, and for their debut they each contributed about nine songs apiece. "We both wrote different parts of the score," Pomeranz explained, "and Kathie Lee wrote the lyrics, all the lyrics. She even wrote one song — lyrics and music — all by herself: 'That Sweet Lassie From Cork.' It's the dance number that is done on the ship."
Lyricist David Zippel was a mite miffed to be the only David around not involved in the show, but he has written with Pomeranz before and for Gifford. "Right now, I'm working with The Lord," he said, meaning Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber. "We're giving another look to The Woman in White to see if it will work as a chamber piece."
Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire were on the opening-night guest-list, having composed songs for a Mother's Day show for Gifford once. Right now, they're readying a one-night-only performance of their hit Off-Broadway musical revue, Starting Here, Starting Now, Dec. 2 at The York Theatre at Saint Peter's. It will star the original stars — Loni Ackerman, Margery Cohen and George Lee Andrews — and, added Maltby with a certain assurance, "this won't be happening again!"
Regis Philbin, along with wife Joy, joined Gifford's NBC co-host Hoda Kotb and other cohorts like Barbara Walters, Matt Lauer, Al Roker, Savannah Guthrie, Natalie Morales, Willie Geist and Sara Haines.
Also in attendance: Liza Minnelli; Our Boy from Birdland, Jim Caruso; Dead Accounts author Theresa Rebeck; the sublimely caustic comedienne Jackie Hoffman (revving up to reprise her "Jewbilant" holiday treat, A Chanukah Carol, Fridays and Saturdays in December at New World Stages, starting Dec. 8); Kris Jenner, the glamorous matriarch of the Kardashian kids; Eve Plumb; producer-actor Tom Hulce; Tony winner Lillias White, and a frankly relieved Frank Gifford.
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