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Updated Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 07:01 AM

‘Scandalous’ doesn’t raise many eyebrows on Broadway | Theater review

By Misha Berson
Seattle Times theater critic

The mood at New York City’s Neil Simon Theatre was upbeat on the evening of Nov. 15, as the new musical “Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson” had its premiere on Broadway.

Matt Lauer, Al Roker and other stars of TV’s “Today Show” were in the glittery crowd of first-nighters, making a show of support for their “Today” colleague and co-host Kathie Lee Gifford, the author and lyricist of “Scandalous.”

Also in attendance were staff and board members of Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre. They had made the cross-country trip to take in and toast the company’s newest theatrical export to the Big Apple, as well as the Broadway directing debut of 5th Avenue artistic head David Armstrong.

When the newspaper and online reviews appeared the next morning, there was less to celebrate. The critical responses to the $10 million bio-musical about the celebrity evangelist McPherson, who pioneered multimedia soul-saving back in the 1920s, ranged from mildly positive (Entertainment Weekly gave the show a B-, and USA Today praised “the courage of its sincerity”) to bruisingly dismissive.

“Scandalous,” a labor of love by Gifford, who spent more than a decade working on it, was deemed “generic and dull” by The New York Times. Newsday found it “not interesting enough to sustain 2½ hours of fast-forward storytelling and inspirational songs that almost always end in throbbing climax.”

The verdict of Bloomberg News: “ ‘Scandalous’ is as ecumenically innocuous as it is pointless.”

Most of the problems the show exhibited in Seattle — its bulky length, its lack of musical variety and its mostly uncritical view of the ragingly ambitious and at times hypocritical McPherson — were still issues in the Broadway version, which reportedly went through some rewriting after its 2011 5th Avenue stand.

But the show’s biggest strength while in Seattle (where it ran under the title “Saving Aimee”) was also duly noted by many New York reviewers: the stirring lead performance of Broadway favorite Carolee Carmello as Aimee, a splashy turn praised by the Village Voice as “committed and powerful.”

And Armstrong picked up a few compliments, too, for the vigor and “flair” of his direction.

With plenty of competition for audiences and an absence of raves, can “Scandalous” last long on the Great White Way? Or will it fizzle fast like “Leap of Faith,” another panned 2012 Broadway tuner about a charismatic evangelist?

Its ability to endure into 2013 will be a test of Gifford’s fan base, and her unabashed promotion of the show from her own “Today” pulpit.

Meanwhile, another 5th Avenue tryout (from 2010) could fare better in its limited New York run, through Dec. 30. “A Christmas Story” opened recently at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway, benefiting from name recognition (it’s based on a popular 1983 Hollywood movie of the same title) and from the musical direction of 5th Avenue staffer Ian Eisendrath.

The show has received friendly reviews, including a Variety notice touting “A Christmas Story” as “a natural for kids, (and) there’s more than enough here for grown-ups of all ages.”

Whatever happens at the Big Apple box office, the 5th Avenue won’t be financially responsible. Both shows have been capitalized on Broadway by other investors — including, in the case of “Scandalous,” the Foursquare Foundation, which is connected to Foursquare Church, which Aimee Semple McPherson founded.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com


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