Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Scandalous @ Neil Simon Theatre

It is magnificent how the actions of one can affect the lives of millions; one might even say that the concept itself is proof that miracles do exist. Miracle Aimee was one of the few blessed enough to have the power to change the world. It is difficult to decide whether or not the results of her own struggles show a corrupt fame-seeking woman or an evangelist preacher just trying to share the word of God with as many people as she could; but none can argue with the fact that she changed the life of anyone who encountered her. David Armstrong’s Scandalous, though hidden behind an overly extravagant set, presents Aimee Semple McPherson as someone who, like so many others, is just trying to struggle through the trials of life with the hopes of leaving an impression in the world.
Aimee Kennedy was born and raised on a farm in Canada. Her mother Minnie’s strict religious views constrain Aimee throughout her childhood while her father James Kennedy always seems loving to the young passionate girl. He even amuses her by taking her to a religious gathering held by missionary Robert Semple, who will eventually become Aimee’s first husband, much to her mother’s displeasure. The two take a missionary trip to China and Aimee’s life is changed forever when her young love dies of malaria immediately before she gives birth to their daughter. Aimee and her daughter move home to live with her now divorced mother and during this time she really began to question whether or not God really cared about her. She soon met her second husband, Harold McPherson, who later divorced her, and they had a son together. During this time Aimee has a reawakening with God and her faith is renewed. She begins to go out and preach the word of God. As her sermons became more popular, Aimee and her mother began traveling so that she could reach as many people as possible. Along the way she saved the lives of thousands, one of which was that of Emma Jo Schaeffer, a whorehouse owner, who stayed loyal to Aimee until her death. She also came into contact with many of the rich, the powerful and the famous, which was greatly beneficial to her ‘new’ way of approaching sermons. Aimee began to incorporate theatrics in order to attract a larger audience to the word of God. Her blatant disrespect of the ways of old, along with her affair with her soon to be third husband (and divorce) David Hutton, had older preachers such as Brother Bob in quite a state of despair. Even though pressure was pushing down on Aimee from all sides between her followers, the media and those like Brother Bob, she still managed to be the first women with her own radio license. Her use of the modern technology allowed her to be the first person to ever preach nationwide. Though Aimee’s achievements were great, they came at a terrible cost. Some time after her marriage with Hutton fell through, Aimee disappeared for almost a month. When found, she was brought to trial under the accusations of faking a kidnapping and committing adultery with her sound technician Kenneth Ormiston. The accusations of the trial were mysteriously dropped and Aimee was not arrested. The end of her life was an endless struggle to fight against the media and at this point her own sheer exhaustion. She died of an overdose, still preaching until her last breath. In looking at the tests Aimee faced in her life and the results of those tests, Scandalous questions whether or not her life, while full of sin, had enough repentance in it to be worthy of the praise she gained.
Armstrong’s Scandalous is a hard piece to sell due to it’s extremely controversial content. How does one give a biographical piece about a religious person without forcing the religion down the audience’s throats? With this cast, it is not difficult to see how Armstrong achieved such a spectacle. Carolee Carmello, starring as Aimee Semple McPherson, (The Addams Family) completely stole the hearts of everyone present. Her voice alone was phenomenal. On top of that her ability to switch between young Aimee into older more mature Aimee, into Aimee narrating her own life reflects her character’s own well known abilities as a preacher to hold an audience’ attention. Her love of God and sheer passion for making a difference is infectious. She completely embodied her character and it is doubtful that others could accomplish the same feat. Alongside her are Candy Buckley (After the Fall) and Roz Ryan (Chicago) as Minnie and Emma Jo respectively. Candy’s overpowering strictness could make God himself cower, and yet the audience can’t help but fall in love with her. The deep adoration she has for her daughter and for those in need shows that there is warmth under that icy interior. Roz Ryan’s character is one with a grueling past. Her struggles made her hard as stone, but Aimee found a soft spot and showed her the light. Though her character may have a religious epiphany, she doesn’t lose her witty sarcasm that never fails to get a good laugh out of the audience. Along with these three leading ladies are three equally talented men, George Hern, Edward Watts and Andrew Samonsky. George Hern (Wicked) played Aimee’s deeply affectionate father and contrarily, Brother Bob, Aimee’s rival preacher. Hern did a fantastic job at making her father so lovable and Brother Bob so awful. Brother Bob’s prejudices against Aimee and his determination to ruin her made blood boil. Edward Watts (Finian’s Rainbow) played Robert Semple and David Hutton. Though Watts looks the part of the dashing young Semple, his adoration for the lord seems to be only skin deep, which is a problem when playing a well-known religious missionary. It is difficult to imagine that someone seemingly lacking in the deep love of god could inspire someone as passionate as Carmello. Watts does a much more believable job as Hutton. The shallow, selfish and completely enchanting character made hearts swoon enough to distract from his many secrets. Playing opposite of Watts (as David) is Andrew Samonsky (South Pacific) as Kenneth Ormiston. Samonsky was charming, attractive and intelligent, everything that an older woman’s young lover should be. The audience couldn’t help but adore him, especially in comparison to Watt’s character’s true personality. Samonsky’s other character, Harold McPherson, was basically unmemorable. Whether intentional due to the fact that McPherson played a similarly forgettable role in Aimee’s life or unintentional, little can be mentioned of the character. Alongside these leads was a small but vocally very present cast including Sam Strasfeld (Mary Poppins), Joseph Dellger (The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess) and Billie Wildrick (Broadway Debut), who appear in a variety of eccentric characters. The ensemble does a wonderful job of portraying the array of people Aimee came in contact with during her ministrations. Audiences experience everything from religious conservative farmers, and crazed followers to media reporters and whores. Overall the cast did a wonderful job of portraying the complicated life of Aimee Semple McPherson.
With strong direction under David Armstrong (creator of Hot N’ Cole) and a beautiful book by Kathie Le Gifford (of television fame – Today), one should not be surprised by the fact that the music by David Pomeranz (West End’s Little Tramp) and David Friedman (film’s Aladdin and the King of Thieves) was enjoyable. The only problem was that mere moments after leaving the theatre, it was near impossible to recall any of the songs. This can be attributed to an ensemble that, though sounding wonderful, was way too loud. Between Musical Director, Joel Fram (Wicked), or Sound Designer, Kevin Travis (Newsies), someone should have noticed that when the ensemble sang, the solo performers were lost completely. Along with difficulty in hearing, the ensemble pieces were accompanied by choreography, by Lorin Latarro (associate choreographer on American Idiot), that didn’t fit the show at all. Most of which was executed poorly. The choreography was very much contemporary while the show itself seemed to be following along the lines of what Aimee would have used to perform her sermons, theatrical but still conservative. The task of clothing the cast goes to Gregory A. Poplyk (Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey’s Dragons). His design concept seemed to work well with what the cast was doing. Aimee’s clothing in particular helped accentuate the drastic changes she went through as her life progressed from small town farm girl to a big life city preacher. The most prominent problem with the technical aspects of the show was the scenic design by Walt Spangler (A Christmas Story). Though the set was beautiful and did the task it set out to do, which was replicate the amazement people must have felt walking in to Aimee’s Temple in LA, it was too much. The smaller pieces for individual scenes were great and the tent fabric worked wonderfully for her sermon, but audience members spent a lot of time straining to see around the monstrous columns that made up the proscenium of the stage. Though used very well, a lot of the action was lost in the extravagant set. Last but not in any way least, the task of lighting this ginormous set went to Natasha Katz (Once). The lighting for Scandalous, unlike much of the rest of the technical aspects, was great. Each new location was so distinctly different. The bright sunlight of the farm verses the dim of the city and the theatrical lighting during the sermons really brought a reality to the show.
Even though there were some major technical flaws, overall the cast and crew of Scandalous should be proud of the work they are doing. The powerful performance of Carolee Carmello and her fellow actors and ensemble leave the audience amazed at Aimee’s incredible achievements.  The piece speaks a lot about the amazing possibilities of life itself and audiences should definitely experience the wonder of Miracle Aimee in Scandalous.

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