The first musical debut in Signature Theatre's new home in Shirlington features rousing gospel-tinged chorus numbers and intense emotional love songs delivered by big name talent.
"Saving Aimee," a bio-musical by Kathie Lee Gifford, David Pomeranz and David Friedman, tells the story of the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. She shocked the religious and secular world of the 1920s both with her success at drawing adoring crowds to her sermons — numbers unheard of for a woman at the time — and with her private life, which some saw as scandalous.
McPherson's story is complex and fascinating, and it makes a musical that is consistently interesting, often thrilling and filled with strong songs sung with energy and verve. A 13-piece orchestra provides good support and the musical moves smoothly under the direction of Eric Schaeffer and the musical direction of Christopher d'Amboise.
"Sister Aimee" was the first woman to broadcast sermons on radio. She established the famous 5,000-seat Angelus Temple in Los Angeles which she filled for three services a day, seven days a week, in part because she put on a good show.
Signature Theatre puts on a good show, too, so they may have full houses as well. Of course, their theater seats about 300, not 5,000, and there are only eight shows a week, not 21.
BROADWAY STAR Carolee Carmello creates the role of Aimee. She has twice been nominated for a Tony Award and is known for her ability to pack emotion into a song and to build a strong dramatic portrait of a character. Both of her talents are important here. She delivers a thrilling, dramatic portrayal of the evangelist from her teenage marriage to an Irish preacher, who dies just a few years later, to her failed second marriage; from the start of her career as an evangelist to the scandal-marked episode when she claimed to have been kidnapped (but many thought she'd just run off with a lover).
Just as thrilling musically and quite a bit of fun in a supporting role is E. Faye Butler, whose blasting gospel/blues singing picks up the tempo and the temperature at key points during the show. She plays a madam in a bordello who is converted by Sister Aimee and becomes her devoted assistant/secretary/friend.
The men in Aimee's romantic life are capably played by Steve Wilson doubling on two major roles: her first husband, who dies early in the first act, and the lover she takes in the second act; as well as Adam Monley as her second husband, who divorces her on the grounds of desertion when she tours the nation preaching the gospel rather than staying home with him. Monley is simply charming when he sings his proposal in "I Will Love You That Way."
Gifford, who wrote the script as well as the lyrics for the songs, sets the story within the context of the trial of Aimee Semple McPherson, when she emerged after her month-long disappearance saying she had been kidnapped and held for ransom. Andrew Long plays the prosecuting attorney in the non-singing scenes of the trial. Most but not all of these scenes are brief enough not to make too much of a dent in the musical flow of the evening.
However, by late in the second act, the trial is getting seriously in the way of the central story.
ARTISTIC DIRECTOR Eric Schaeffer directed an earlier musical by Gifford and Pomeranz (Friedman joined this project later) in New York. It was "Under the Bridge" and one of its stars was Broadway veteran Ed Dixon. Schaeffer brings Dixon to Signature to play two important supporting roles in "Saving Aimee." During the first act, he's warm but not overly sweet as Aimee's adoring father who is her only defense against a fanatically over-bearing mother. In the second, he gives just enough of a comic spin to the role of the
bombastically bigoted competing evangelist, who campaigns against her "undignified" approach to preaching the gospel.
Another admirable performance comes from Broadway veteran and Signature regular Florence Lacey, who was also featured in "Under the Bridge" in New York. She gives just enough complexity to the role of Aimee's mother to keep it from being too one-sided.
Still, her lovely solo on the title song doesn't completely answer the question: "Just what is meant by 'Saving Aimee?'"
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.