Television celebrity Kathie Lee Gifford has been working for a decade on Saving Aimee, her tribute to megachurch pioneer Aimee Semple McPherson, but the result is an overlong, superficial disappointment—and it's hard to believe that even McPherson herself could've been any preachier. "It's very religious," my 14-year-old daughter leaned in and whispered after what felt like three or four hours into a first act that seemed determined to dwell on the mysteries of eternity by matching it in interminability.
"Sister Aimee," as she was known to congregants and tabloid journalists alike, was a household name in the 1920s and 1930s, a celebrity of such renown that Johnny Mercer used "Aimee Semple" as a rhyme for "Shirley Temple" in the lyrics to his 1937 classic, "Hooray for Hollywood." A traveling evangelist who attracted stadium-sized crowds to her tent revivals, McPherson founded the 5,300-seat Angelus Temple in Los Angeles in 1923, adopting the film industry's showmanship to draw throngs of followers. She was also a religious broadcasting pioneer, her daily radio show reaching millions of households and inspiring the many televangelists who would follow in her footsteps. Today, the Pentecostal denomination she founded, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, has 8 million adherents and nearly 60,000 churches in about 140 countries.
But the twice-divorced McPherson was also a staple of the scandal sheets, an A-list Hollywood celebrity who palled around with Charlie Chaplin and William Randolph Hearst, and whose 1926 trial—based on charges that she staged her own kidnapping in order to cover up an illicit affair—made national headlines.
Gifford uses the scandal as a stock narrative device, cutting in appearances by prosecutor Asa Keyes (thinly drawn, but ably played by Charles Leggett), in order to retell McPherson's life via flashback. McPherson's whole life. Dating back to her teenage years. Nobody is that interesting.
Because of Gifford's obvious affection for McPherson, she dives into biographical details while only skimming the surface of her more compelling—and unflattering—psychological conflicts: Teenage girl runs away from oppressive mother to marry saintly itinerant preacher who tragically dies, leaving her with an infant child... blah, blah, blah... loveless second marriage... blah, blah, blah... God suddenly speaks to her while she's ironing. This part of McPherson's life could have been told in a single, well-crafted song, rather than the first two thirds of a seemingly endless, melodrama-packed first act.
Things pick up in act two when McPherson gets to Hollywood, but never enough to overcome what's preceded, and the showmanship never rises to the level of McPherson herself. We see glimpses of what the musical could've been, with almost-funny, almost-moving backstage peeks into the outrageous biblical performances McPherson used to illustrate her sermons. Everything about this show is telegraphed—even the perfunctory standing ovation at the show's conclusion is directly preceded by a gospel number that ends with the lyrical instruction to "stand up!"
Much of the music by David Pomeranz, David Friedman, and Gifford is of that generic chamber-musical variety—which you can't walk out humming, almost by design—while the few genre numbers are more engaging, if even more clichéd. Gifford's lyrics, on the other hand, are simultaneously underwhelming and overbearing. By the show's conclusion I could have killed for a double rhyme—or, in fact, any couplet outside the "oo" section of Gifford's rhyming dictionary: "I will love you, what else can I do/I found my reason for living in you... How many nights have I beseeched you/Hoping my prayers just might reach you." Sigh.
But Gifford's worst dramatic transgression is assuming her audience shares a similar religious sensibility, let alone passion. The lyrics are relentlessly preachy, and the dramatic arc almost entirely focuses on the personal drama of negotiating and accepting one's own flawed relationship with God. McPherson's reaffirmation of her faith might be drama enough for one of Gifford's fellow holy rollers—former newscaster and erstwhile politician Susan Hutchison, for example, who was in the audience and appeared to love the show. While Saving Aimee could be a hit at Christian colleges, I can't recommend it for general audiences.
That said, like everything at the 5th Avenue, the entire production reeked of competence, from the soaring set to the 14-piece orchestra to Roz Ryan's audience-pleasing portrayal of the clichéd, sassy-but-wise black sidekick character. But by far the highlight of the show is Carolee Carmello's powerfully voiced portrayal of McPherson, a vocal performance that at times masks much of the material's underlying weakness. Saving Aimee may not be fit for Broadway, but Carmello certainly is.