On Saving Aimee, Kathie Lee Gifford and the Sad Fortress of Solitude

You probably already know that the new musical at 5th Avenue theatre, Saving Aimee, is written by American TV darling Kathie Lee Gifford.

Because of all the local press hovering around Gifford, however, you may not know that the musical is about the scandalous life of Aimee Semple McPherson, an infamous leader in the early twentieth century evangelist Christian movement.

“Sister Aimee,” as she was widely known, pioneered a new way of “spreading the gospel” by incorporating radio broadcasts and vaudeville performance into her weekly practice. She was also known for her philanthropy during the Great Depression, her charismatic sermons, her huge congregations and her love life. In a recent interview with King 5, Gifford called McPherson the “original tabloid queen.”

It’s understandable why anyone would set out to write about McPherson. Her life’s story is full of ups and downs: insane success, devastating loss and odd celebrity cameos (Charlie Chaplin, William Hearst). And her influence is still felt in today’s Four Square church.

Don’t forget: she had a self-proclaimed power to perform miracles, a dependence on barbiturates and she wore a white uniform topped with a bright blue cape.

Take any slice of her bio and you could tease out themes of loss, self-discovery, self-delusion, and self doubt—all good ingredients for dramatic story.

As scholar Matthew Avery Sutton states in an interview published in the show’s program:

[McPherson was] a true believer. A truly flawed true believer. She never conned people. But she was not perfect. …Her life illuminates our enduring struggles to find intimacy, our efforts to overcome personal racial or gender or class barriers, our unease with the influence of religion on American politics and culture, and our nervousness about the opportunities and limitations of new technologies.

Sounds good to me. But, unfortunately, Saving Aimee, in its current state, doesn’t cover much of that.

Instead, the musical is torn between recreating the vaudeville spectacle (and financial success) of McPherson’s famous sermons and exploring a theme that echoes Gifford’s own life a little too bluntly: fame is hard on a person.

Against a bizarre design backdrop that marries a Busby Berkeley staircase and Superman’s “fortress of solitude,” Saving Aimee traces how McPherson’s troubles mount up as quickly as her success. (I believe Biggy said it best: Mo money, mo problems.)

I'm almost on board with Saving Aimee, but not as a musical.

Sorry, but these vaguely spiritual songs, including “Oh, the Power” and “He Will Be My Home”, are just not hits I see trickling down to the Karaoke songbook anytime soon. Not because they're about God, but because there's no hooks!

When the musical isn’t “at church,” asking us to follow, while blindly slapping our tambourines and ignoring all of McPherson’s questionable practices (uh, where did her children go and why doesn’t she care?), the story is focused on the tabloid stuff: she’s losing her first husband, then remarrying, then having a nervous breakdown, then marrying again, then alone again…and so on.

Inserting songs between these scenes feels a bit like trying to turn Mildred Pierce into a musical. (Song titles they might like to consider for their next project: “Mommy’s Rich And Nobody Loves Her” and “Why Did My Not-Evil Daughter Have to Drown?” or “Really Alone This Time.”)

When the mood is light, Saving Aimee’s songs do achieve poignant moments about deepening faith or falling in love (or lust).

But when it’s time for McPherson to question her faithful path: melodrama takes over, or we quickly divert back to her salacious vaudevillian lifestyle.

Which would be fine, except then the dance numbers fall short.

There are a lot of drawn out diagonal crosses and longing looks up at you know who.

One scene, in which Sister Aimee gets dance lessons in a brothel, at least tries to have some fun, but it flounders. Emma Jo Schaefer, or Madame Mama (Roz Ryan) has the pipes, but looks like she is in pain walking on stage. That puts a definite damper on the dazzle.

McPherson is played by Carolee Carmello, who has a ridiculously powerful voice and the effortless polish you’d expect from any seasoned Broadway performer. She brings the right tough-as-nails energy to the role – especially as precocious young Aimee (a casting choice I really like, instead of the usual child actor stand-in). I probably wouldn’t have lasted past intermission without her.

Sharp as it was, Carmello’s performance can’t make this hollow storytelling whole.

Instead of exploring, at all, what drives McPherson’s faith (besides the love of her first husband) – and why it drove her to pursue it at such a gargantuan public scale – the story is ultimately about its framing device: the trial in which McPherson was accused of faking her own kidnapping in order to cover up an affair.

Once that little problem clears itself up (literally, with a phone call) – the play winds down to Carmello’s final closing number: which is perhaps the loneliest, saddest song of all.

Instead of feeling moved - or even challenged - by the exultant songs of worship in this musical, I feel bad for McPherson. I feel I'm supposed to look at her as a hero. But all I see is a lonely, misunderstood person dressed up in a blue cape.