This theater image released by The Publicity Office shows Edward Watts, left, and Carolee Carmello during a performance of the musical “Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson,” at the Neil Simon Theatre in New York.
Despite disparaging reviews, “Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson,” the new musical with book and lyrics by television personality Kathie Lee Gifford that opened on Broadway last week, is a show that will inspire people of faith, enlighten seekers of truth and entertain everyone who attends.
Bravo to Gifford for her courage in delivering a message of hope and healing that shines the Light on the Great White Way. Her brilliant staging tells the compelling story of the controversial, yet charismatic radio evangelist of the 1920s, Aimee Semple McPherson, about whom gossip columnist Louella Parsons asks at the end of the show, “Was she a true woman of God? Or just one hell of a woman?”
In many ways, “Scandalous” is an example of “life imitating art.” Arguably Gifford herself is a modern day reflection of Sister Aimee’s lightning rod persona – admired by the masses, yet often pilloried by the press for her bold witness and authentic, transparent style.
Indeed some of Gifford’s lyrics about Sister Aimee from the show’s music and book could be interpreted autobiographically, describing a woman “haunted by heartache, undaunted by fame,” whose “dream taught her to soar and tore her apart.”
Gifford further embodies the techniques of her central character by sharing a conservative message using progressive methods. For years a fixture on syndicated and network television, now she tells the story as Sister Aimee would have done – warts and all — blending religious themes with contemporary culture in a musical on the big stage.
“Life’s worth the courage it takes to stand up each morning and face yesterday’s mistakes,” Carolee Carmello, dazzling as Sister Aimee, belts out in one of her myriad melodies. “We’re lost without a Pentecost until God calls us home; you never know true peace until you surrender to His voice.”
The show packs a punch without being preachy. In fact, there is enough sex, drugs and intrigue to make the religious among us uncomfortable. But as Gifford said at an audience “talk back” following a matinee performance on opening weekend, “There is no redemption without a mistake; Aimee didn’t judge people, she just loved them.”
And neither does the show judge, instead presenting the case for Sister Aimee’s life and ministry, including opening and closing scenes depicting her real-life courtroom trial. In the end, the audience must decide for itself whether this woman “stained, ashamed and shattered gained the whole world or lost all that mattered.”
“Scandalous” unpacks the mystery of love and forgiveness of a God of second chances, who is bigger than our flaws and our faults, and welcomes all who come to Him in repentance and faith. The show takes no prisoners in its visceral and visual portrayal that God works through flawed vessels. It contrasts the underbelly of human nature with the mercy of God, from whom a fresh cup is available each morning.
“Scandalous” is a labor of love on which Gifford has been diligently working to bring to Broadway for nearly 13 years. She shared with me her lifelong fascination with Sister Aimee’s life and calling, and unique perspective from which to tell McPherson’s story, strengthened by the serendipity that her husband, Frank (Gifford), attended her church, Angelus Temple, as a kid.
Frequently, Christian cinema and perhaps many modern Christian artistic expressions are far too often, sadly mindlessly didactic. As long as the Gospel is presented, the faith community offers rave reviews to a salvation message expressed on a screen or stage through films or plays that are clearly void of elevated artistic craft or creative integrity.
But such is not the case with Gifford’s stellar achievements in combining true theatrical and musical creativity to a complicated faith-oriented, reflective story line, which deserves deeper understanding and a better critique than offered in a recent New York Times review. That all too familiar tone reminds me of the “F” rating the movie critic of that same paper assigned to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of The Christ,” that went on to earn more $370 million in its 2004 domestic release, and nearly $612 million worldwide.
The iconic British preacher Charles Spurgeon once said famously, “The Word of God is like a lion; you don’t defend it, just turn it loose.” Kathie Lee Gifford has done just that, unleashing a lion in the heart of the Big Apple, which needs no defense.
Using a metaphor from one of the biblical stories that Sister Aimee used to stage at Angelus Temple years ago, Kathie Lee Gifford is David, facing off with the Goliaths of the rough and tumble world of New York theater.
But as Emma Jo Schaeffer, played by actress Roz Ryan, counsels Sister Aimee, “A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.” Obviously, Kathie Lee Gifford took that counsel to heart, telling me after the show, “I just wanted to bring light to a dark world.”
And now that Kathie Lee Gifford has done it, she needs support from people of faith, art lovers or individuals just looking for a rockin’ good time. If thou “has a pulse” and are in New York over the next two weeks, help her “keep doing it,” and go see “Scandalous.”
When you do, you will have a better understanding of Sister Aimee’s admonition that, “The Hand of God is the only thing you can grab onto without losing your soul.”
Larry Ross is president of A. Larry Ross Communications, a Dallas-based public relations agency. His company does not represent Kathie Lee Gifford or the production.