Well, you can't blame the cast, and shaking one's fists at God seems pointless, but regardless of who's at fault, Scandalous, the new musical playing at the Neil Simon, is painful enough to make even the most fervent believers question their faith in musical theater. Armed with a heavily plotted story and the general mirth of a crucifixion, this musical is sadly beyond salvation.
It all begins with a poorly selected and misleading title that makes us feel we're about to see something tawdry, or at least mildly titillating; instead we are pushed through the life story of Aimee Semple McPherson, a woman we hardly care about and who would be much better served by a more objective Ken Burns documentary.
Carolee Carmello deserves some kind of award for endurance, as she spends less than seven minutes off the stage for this song-heavy production and, regardless of recent voice problems, she never once shows any vocal weakness or resignation despite starring in an ill-fated flop. Dark premonitions aside, Carmello beams with joy and rapture, beautifully transitioning from an older version of McPherson back to the days of her tender youth and then gradually adding the years back on as her story progresses. Candy Buckley cracks with puritanical wisdom as Aimee's mother, and Roz Ryan dutifully pushes through the grossly dated stereotype that is the book's portrayal of Emma Jo Schaeffer. The thickly laid-on attempts at Mammy humor are painful, and there's a Moses/slave reference later in the piece that's cringe-worthy. All the actors play their roles and sing their songs with great energy and cannot be faulted for being unable to save this soulless show.
So who's left holding the Hefty bag for this abortion of a musical? Kathie Lee Gifford is a worthy contender for that ill-fitting crown, with her arcless book and dull, obvious lyrics. Composers David Pomeranz and Friedman also contribute with their endless catalog of forgettable songs that pound the audience relentlessly without offering anything in return. Overall, this creative team reeks of the amateur, and the story of how they managed to get producers and funding attached to this project would undoubtedly be a more entertaining tale then the one they're trying to tell. Director David Armstrong neither helps nor hurts this ill-fated folly, sticking with the staging that one would expect and performances that have been played countless times before. The whole thing feels like it was taken out of crates dated for another era, dusted off and dressed up so it wouldn't look too much like a history lesson.
The story of Aimee Semple McPherson is likely a fascinating one in its own right and worth some exploration, but to do so through the medium of the musical is a misguided move, and presenting it from Aimee's own subjective perspective only muddles the matter further. The parallel of the preacher and the performer has been explored many times before, but Leap of Faith did that better -- and when you're referencing that musical as the lesser of two evils, you should know you're in trouble. - C. Jefferson Thom
The Neil Simon Theatre is at 250 W. 52nd St. in Manhattan.
Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.