Neil Simon Theatre
December 9, 2012
Last Sunday, I attended the final Broadway performance of the new musical, Scandalous, at the Neil Simon Theatre. Based on the life of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson in the early 1900’s, Scandalous chronicles her young life on a farm in Canada, her traveling ministry and subsequent rise to fame, her contradictory personal life, and mysterious kidnapping trial. Music was composed by David Pomeranz and David Friedman with book and lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford. Unfortunately, McPherson’s story did not captivate the interest of New York theatre-goers. After receiving lukewarm to negative reviews, Scandalous closed on December 9th after only 31 preview performances and 29 regular performances.
So, why am I writing about a show that has closed? Because I liked Scandalous, and I’m very sad for its talented, newly unemployed cast, as well as the audiences that will never have the opportunity to see it.
Comments: Aimee Semple McPherson was played by Broadway veteran, Carolee Carmello, and to say that she conquered this mammoth role would be an understatement. Her commanding stage presence and her powerful singing voice resounded throughout the Neil Simon Theatre. The experience of listening to her sing this role is one that I will not forget. She gave an emotionally-charged, charismatic, Tony Award-worthy performance and seamlessly carried the entire show. Bravo. And as a sidenote, I’m glad they didn’t cast a less talented movie star to drive ticket sales. Carolee Carmello was perfectly cast.
The supporting cast was also well-cast. Aimee’s parents were played by George Hearn and Candy Buckley (George Hearn also played a preacher who challenges Aimee’s ministry). Both gave very solid performances, and unless you referred to the playbill before the performance, you would not realize that James Kennedy and Brother Bob are both played by George Hearn. Candy Buckley nailed the dry, sarcastic humor and gave the audience quite a few laughs. Edward Watts played Aimee’s first and third husbands. I particularly enjoyed his solo (“Come Whatever May”) as Robert Semple in the first act. After Carolee, he was probably the most vocally “memorable”, at least for me. Andrew Samonsky played Aimee’s second husband and Kenneth Ormiston, one of Aimee’s lovers, and also gave a solid performance. Finally, Roz Ryan portrayed Emma Jo Schaeffer, a brothel owner who encounters Aimee and discards her lifestyle to follow Aimee’s ministry. She provides most of the comedy in the show. The audience loved her and with good reason. What I really liked about her comedic performance was that it wasn’t completely over the top, which very easily could have been the case. I liked that her character did not function solely as the comedic relief, and that the writing allowed her to have some serious and subdued moments. Roz Ryan gave just the right balance of comedy and drama.
I enjoyed most of the music and I disagree with the critics’ opinion that the songs were bland and unmemorable. I enjoyed all of Aimee’s songs, and of course, part of that is because Carolee Carmello is an extraordinary singer. However, many of these songs can stand on their own two feet, including, “Follow Me”, “For Such A Time As This”, “Come Whatever May”, “Stand Up” and “A Girl’s Gotta Do What A Girl’s Gotta Do”. I have not heard anything about a cast recording. The book was very clear cut and did a good job of condensing Aimee’s real life into a 2 1/2 hour show. Told from her point of view, the writing was very sympathetic to the character and portrayed her as a good person with flaws (as opposed to a lying, manipulative, immoral woman hiding under the guise of a God-fearing preacher).
So what went wrong? Why didn’t this show sell tickets?
What I do know is that there was very negative buzz on the Internet since the day previews started. Much of the negativity surrounded Kathie Lee Gifford and her relentless efforts to move this show to Broadway. Hateful comments were written, denouncing her writing ability, and wishing her efforts to fail. Despite Kathie Lee’s ability to promote Scandalous on her show, I wonder if her association with the production turned some people away. That would be unfortunate. Furthermore, many theatre-goers who admitted to never seeing Scandalous were making speculative assumptions about the show online, perpetuating the negative buzz. But welcome to the world of social media. Though it’s frustrating for me (as someone who generally finds something enjoyable in every show I encounter), I can only try to use social media for good by continuing to keep my blog as positive as possible and writing about performances that entertain and inspire me!
Another possible factor involves the number of “religious” shows on Broadway in the past year. The Book of Mormon. Godspell. Jesus Christ Superstar. Leap of Faith. Sister Act. Scandalous is actually somewhat similar to Leap of Faith in that they both tell the story of a flawed preacher. Are Broadway audiences weary of religiously-themed productions? If that’s the case, the demise of Scandalous could just be poor timing. Or perhaps, audiences simply wanted Aimee Semple McPherson to be portrayed as more scandalous.