'Scandalous' review: Kathie Lee's musical

Carolee Carmello (center) in a scene from"Scandalous: The

Carolee Carmello (center) in a scene from"Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson" at the Neil Simon Theatre. (Credit: Jeremy Daniel)

There is nothing remotely scandalous about "Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson," the biographical musical that has book, lyrics and additional music by Kathie Lee Gifford. Despite the inevitable celebrity-lite target on Gifford's back, the musical about the media-star Christian evangelist of the 1920s does not have the toxic aura of a vanity production. It is well-produced and professional.

It's also not interesting, alas, at least not interesting enough to sustain 21/2 hours of fast-forward storytelling and inspirational songs that almost always end in throbbing climax. At least as problematic is the bombardment of nursery-rhyme lyrics -- that is, "come with me, on bended knee" and "there's a child deep inside who won't be denied" and "You can touch the sky, why can't I?" and, oh, well, "Hey, little lassie, come show me your assie."

But we have a reason to give thanks, and that is Carolee Carmello. One of our most deeply wonderful, inexplicably underutilized singing actors, Carmello finally gets a giant vehicle that needs her massive talents. If life is fair, or enough people see this show, there won't be another second-cast Mother Superior in "Sister Act" or vampire's mother in "Lestat" for this amazing artist.

Her voice has the shading and shine of buffed metal -- copper and piercing one moment, pewter mellow the next. We see Aimee as a rebellious, theater-loving daughter of a strict fundamentalist mother (Candy Buckley) and indulgent father (George Hearn, later seen as the devious San Diego preacher who tries to destroy her). Along the way, she converts a brothel madam (Roz Ryan) into her loyal aide.

Aimee marries twice, becomes a radio pioneer, builds an empire, pops pills, collects men and probably faked her own kidnapping before she died at 53. Director David Armstrong gets all this to happen with relative clarity between the split marble stairs of her L.A. Angelus Temple, which looks like an ice palace.

In Aimee, Carmello -- who had to cancel two performances Wednesday for doctor-ordered vocal rest -- has a strenuous, exposed character who, with much better material, might have rivaled Mama Rose and Evita. Despite the monotony of the touch-what-you-dream songs (music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman), Carmello alone makes Aimee's journey feel as adventurous as it clearly was.


WHAT "Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson"

WHERE Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St., Manhattan

INFO $35-$140; 877-251-2929; scandalousonbroadway.com

BOTTOM LINE Kathie Lee gets help from Carolee

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