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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 28, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 43
Carolee Carmello is what's Saving Aimee
Arts & Entertainment
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Carolee Carmello is what's Saving Aimee

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

Saving Aimee
5th Avenue Theatre
Through October 29, 2011


Saving Aimee is the latest new musical produced by the 5th Avenue Theatre, and attempts to tell the true and scandalous story of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. Aimee rose to be one of the most recognized names/voices in the country, utilizing the media to become America's first celebrity evangelist, only to fall in scandal. But while McPherson's thundering sermons sounded like the trumpets at Jericho, it's the musical that comes tumbling down. David Pomeranz and David Friedman write the music while Kathie Lee Gifford (of The Today Show) writes the book and lyrics. Make no mistake; it is the star Carolee Carmello that gives Aimee any hope of being saved.

The real life story of McPherson is one of the earliest American scandals of the 20th century. In 1890 Aimee Kennedy was born to parents James, a Canadian farmer, and Mildred, a zealously religious woman. Aimee eventually marries three times, the first ending in widowhood and the later two in divorce. When she hears what she believes to be the voice of God, Aimee abandons her second husband, and sets out to Los Angeles to preach the Word, eventually founding the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Learning to use both printed and radio media to her advantage, Aimee becomes a Hollywood sensation, attracting thousands to her church on a daily basis. Her preaching gets accused of being 'God-eville'; part sermon and part vaudeville showmanship, and Aimee becomes the 'PT Barnum of the Pulpit.' Scandal starts in 1926 when she mysteriously disappears while swimming at Venice Beach. Despite claims of being kidnapping, and an alleged 13-hour escape through the desert on foot, Aimee reappears five weeks later completely nourished and well-coiffed from her own wardrobe. The trial that followed became a media circus. Her eventual death in 1944 from either an accidental or suicidal overdose of barbiturates ensured the name Aimee Semple McPherson to forever be associated with speculations.

There are three major forces working in Saving Aimee: Roz Ryan, Judy Kaye, and the incomparable Carolee Carmello. Roz Ryan plays Emma Jo, a former madam of ill repute that reforms and becomes Aimee's personal secretary. Ryan is one to keep an eye on; because of her timing she naturally and easily steals every scene she is in. Judy Kaye plays Minnie, Aimee's zealot mother and companion to her daughter. Kaye is a longtime Broadway veteran (Mamma Mia!, Phantom of the Opera) and she brings the power of her experience to the role. The character's strengths and at times underhandedness comes through, and the audience clearly sees one of the driving forces in Aimee McPherson's life.

Carmello is the main reason why this show should be seen. Her performance in this production can only be compared to what it must have been like watching Dame Judy Dench in her high school's senior play. Carmello's former Broadway work (Parade, The Addams Family) has given her the strong stage presence she brings to every scene of this musical. From the ingénue who becomes captivated by the preacher Robert Semple, to the powerful woman on trial for scandalous allegations, Carmello's performance is definitely the attraction. Her vocal instrument is just as strong, and she sings each note with power and passion. Carmello has been with Saving Aimee since its original workshop in 2005, and it is clear she knows how to use her talents well (and she has a lot of it) in letting her work shine in this role.

While the real life events of Aimee McPherson are fascinating, Saving Aimee is the stage musical equivalent to the color beige; it's not a bad thing, but there's very little that's particularly memorable about it, either. The setting is a huge stairway that climbs from either side of the stage and connects to an elevated pulpit in the middle. It easily becomes the main focus, detracting from the actors and dwarfing their performances below. The music is melodic enough, but there's nothing you'll leave humming, and it wasn't until the song closing Act One that any of it really stood out; unfortunately the rest of the songs will chase it from your memory. Aimee McPherson wielded a fiery passion with a hypnotic personality, but very little of that comes through from the written dialogue and it falls flat.

The 5th Avenue Theatre should definitely be commended. For the last two shows, the lyrics and dialogue could easily be understood: the acoustics being a common complaint by theater patrons for quite a while. This seems to have been fixed, and there were no problems with understanding what was happening on stage. It should be noted that the writing, composing, directing, and general production of a musical show on any level can never be an easy thing. The 5th Avenue has previously taken risks (and continues to take them) on unproduced musicals; some have become well rewarded, others need more work. Saving Aimee is in the second group.

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