Kathie Lee Gifford’s musical is a labor of love that brings light to a dark world

AP This theater image released by The Publicity Office shows Edward Watts, left, and Carolee Carmello during a performance of … Continued

AP

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.

About

  • WmarkW

    When did On Faith become a re-distributor of press releases by paid P.R. firms promoting their clients’ products?

  • SODDI

    Slow news week?

  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous

Read More Articles

colbert
Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

emptytomb
God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

noplaceonearth
An Untold Story of Bondage to Freedom: Passover 1943

How a foxhole that led to a 77-mile cave system saved the lives of 38 Ukrainian Jews during the Holocaust.

shutterstock_148333673
Friend or Foe? Learning from Judas About Friendship with Jesus

We call Judas a betrayer. Jesus called him “friend.”

shutterstock_53190298
Fundamentalist Arguments Against Fundamentalism

The all-or-nothing approach to the Bible used by skeptics and fundamentalists alike is flawed.

shutterstock_178468880
Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

shutterstock_186795503
The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

shutterstock_185995553
How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

HIFR
Heaven Hits the Big Screen

How “Heaven is for Real” went from being an unsellable idea to a bestselling book and the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.

shutterstock_186364295
This God’s For You: Jesus and the Good News of Beer

How Jesus partied with a purpose.

egg.jpg
Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

SONY DSC
Dear Evangelicals, Please Reconsider Your Fight Against Gay Rights

A journalist and longtime observer of American religious culture offers some advice to his evangelical friends.