Monday, April 23, 2007

God Awful: Saving Aimee at Signature Theatre

Nothing can save Saving Aimee, a musical about 1920s evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson currently receiving its world premiere at Washington D.C.'s Signature Theatre. To call it bad would be a gross understatement. This show is a howler from start to finish.

McPherson's life certainly had the elements of great drama. After her conversion to Pentecostalism at age 17, she became one of the first female preachers to reach a national audience, first with large-scale revival meetings, then with a weekly radio broadcast. She may be best known today as the founder of Angelus Temple, a charismatic Los Angeles megachurch still standing after more than eighty years. Her "illustrated sermons" -- elaborate stage productions of Biblical stories and other evangelical themes -- were the stuff of legend, as was her tumultuous private life. With three marriages, multiple nervous breakdowns, and one notorious six-week disappearance in the spring of 1926 (leading to several grand jury trials and a thorough drubbing in the national press), McPherson cultivated an outsized evangelical persona that captivated believers and unbelievers alike.

Alas, Saving Aimee isn't likely to captivate anyone, except die-hard musical-theater masochists. The score, by pop songsters David Pomeranz and David Friedman, is about as bland as showtunes get, with synthetic ballads and soulless gospel rock. Not only do Pomeranz and Friedman fail utterly to evoke an early twentieth century milieu, the two don't even possess compatible musical styles: Friedman's songs tend toward the brassy, while Pomeranz's numbers are more contemporary-sounding and innocuous. The musical highlight of the evening, "A Girl's Gotta Do What a Girl's Gotta Do" (attributed to Friedman and sung by a rather menacing chorus of prostitutes) sounds like a Cy Coleman knockoff, but it's a welcome respite from the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Boublil-Schonberg knockoffs that populate the rest of the show.

As bad as the music generally is, the book and lyrics are much, much worse. Both are credited (not contractually, one hopes) to Kathie Lee Gifford of "Regis and Kathie Lee" fame. If Ms. Gifford possesses any creative aptitude, it is not apparent here. Her dialogue tends toward high camp, with characters spouting cliches like "She was born to be what I never could!" And when one character remarks that "For the first time in her life, Aimee is afraid," Gifford promptly has Aimee announce, "I'm afraid" (one of many unintentionally funny moments). The show is also rife with historical inaccuracies, rearranging the chronology of McPherson's later life and making the evangelist seem far weaker than she was.

The lyrics are so bizarre that they defy description -- but luckily, not quotation. Unintentional comic gems include "These are the hapless hopeless people / Huddled beneath my makeshift steeple" and "This is such a changing world / An ever-rearranging world." The title song rhymes "Saving Aimee" with "My misbehaving Aimee," a line which worked for Fats Waller but falls conspicuously flat here. Gifford's worst lyrics arrive in a treacly second-act number called "The Silent, Sorrowful Shadows," in which Ms. McPherson wallows in self-pity after yet another mental breakdown. Needless to say, the sheer profusion of supple sibilants, stacked in superfluous succession, could draw laughter from a heart of flint.

Yet for all these problems, the worst flaw in Saving Aimee is Gifford's inability to understand Aimee Semple McPherson as a character. McPherson could have been portrayed as a female Elmer Gantry (as Sinclair Lewis did), as a neurotic little-girl-lost, as a religious huckster who comes to believe her own spiel, or as a genuine American visionary. But Gifford doesn't commit to these or any other points of view, and so the protagonist always seems passive and inactive.

Signature's production manages to remain polished and proficient, despite the subpar material. As Aimee McPherson, two-time Tony nominee Carolee Carmello struggles valiantly to make a badly conceived, underwritten character into a three-dimensional human being, but in vain. Florence Lacey encounters much the same problem with her characterization of Minnie Kennedy, Aimee McPherson's mother. In fact, the show's only standout performance belongs to E. Faye Butler, as an African-American prostitute who discovers her true calling in McPherson's ministry. Essentially, Butler is playing the stereotypical "Black sidekick," but no matter. She steers her character clear of Gifford's cheap piety and sentimentality, and her full-throated gutbucket-blues voice can bring even the most banal ditties to life.

Director Eric Schaeffer and choreographer Christopher d'Amboise have pulled out all the stops to make Saving Aimee watchable, or at least a trifle less excruciating. They pack the 400-seat MAX stage space with color and movement, and they lavish attention on even the most trivial period details. Walt Spangler's whitewashed country-church set conceals few surprises but is always impressive to look at, while Chris Lee's lighting contributes to the look and the content of the show. True, in this case the high production values and thoughtful staging amount to nothing more than lipstick on a pig. But you have to admit, it's a lot of lipstick.

Saving Aimee. Music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman. Book and lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Two hours and thirty-five minutes. Playing at Signature Theatre through May 13. Tickets $37-$63. For more information or to buy tickets, visit

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