Shortly after I saw the new musical Scandalous on Broadway, I received an email asking me to "spread the word" about the show. Nothing strange there, I suppose. But the show was still in previews at the time, and I was sorta struck by the hypocrisy. I mean, how often do we hear show staff kvetching about people who tweet or post about shows in previews, but only when the comments are negative. Clearly, Scandalous wants to have its forbidden fruit and eat it to.
So, in response to this email exhortation, here's what I posted on Facebook:
Just got an email asking me to "spread the word" about the new musical Scandalous. OK. Scandalous is a inept piece of poorly crafted religious propaganda masquerading as a Broadway musical. Except for the presence of the top-notch theatrical performers Carolee Carmello and George Hearn, Scandalous is worthless.
Careful what you wish for, huh?
Scandalous purports to relate the life and supposedly scandalous times of Aimee Semple McPherson, one of the first of the big-media evangelists. The show starts with a sort of "How did you get to be here, Mr. Shepherd?" flashback, and then we pretty much get the cradle-to-grave story of Sister Aimee, as she came to be known.
As I sat watching the show, I had a flashback of my own to 1986, when I sat the the very same theater (the Neil Simon) staring somewhat aghast at Into the Light, another inane piece of musical proselytizing. Both productions were funded in part by religious groups, further evidence of the good intentions that the road to Hell is paved with. The two shows share not only the desire to spread the Good Word, but also the liability of spreading it overly thinly, with instantly forgettable scores, plodding books, and a number of miscalculated moments that make you wonder whether mediocrity should indeed be a mortal sin.
Of course, Scandalous might never have gotten past the idea stage had it not been for the brand-name cachet of Kathie Lee Gifford, who wrote the book and lyrics. (The music is by David Pomeranz and David Friedman, with additional music by Gifford.) The show has been puttering around for at least seven years under the title Saving Aimee. You'd think that in that time someone would have had to guts to stand up to Kathie Lee and tell her that none of it was really working. But that's what happens in vanity productions: no one feels empowered to tell the empress that she's naked as a jaybird.
The narrative to Scandalous is fairly straightforward: innocent farm girl finds religion, fame, men, and prescription meds, not necessarily in that order. The book's biggest liability is that major events too often are announced rather than dramatized. This is particularly true of Aimee's pivotal and literal come-to-Jesus moment, when she supposedly hears a voice tell her to go out and preach the Word. We learn of this crucial conversion through direct-address narration. Hey, if it's that important, show me, don't tell me.
Gifford's book is also replete with plot holes and inconsistent characterizations. At first, Aimee's mother is portrayed as a religious fanatic, but later in the show she acts as a tempering force for Aimee's fanaticism. Throughout the show, it's really unclear who's really supposed to be the bigger Jesus freak, as the characters change so often in their relative stances. There are also plot elements that get introduced but never developed. Members of the Ku Klux Klan inexplicably enter the scene and donate a big old pile of gold ingots to Aimee and her church. We never learn why they do this, nor what relevance this seemingly foreboding episode has to the larger narrative.
[Spoiler Alert: I kinda sorta reveal the ending of the show in the paragraph below. Kinda sorta.]
Also, the show begins and ends with Aimee on trial for something or other, but it was never really clear to me what she had done that was genuinely illegal. (I suppose I could Google it, but I frankly don't care.) What's worse, the show resolves Aimee's legal troubles with the lazy dramatist's best friend: the deus ex machina. We suddenly discover that Aimee's mom has some incriminating information about William Randolph Hearst, which mom then uses to blackmail Hearst into using his newspapers to help exonerate Aimee. Um, OK...
Unfortunately, Scandalous isn't even the kind of flop that provides gales of unintentional laughter, although the number in which a grief-stricken Aimee tears apart a Bible while her mother watches in horror comes pretty close. To illustrate Aimee's penchant for turning her pulpit into a vaudeville show, we're subjected to a series of would-be comic numbers that bring the stories of Samson and Moses to kitschy life. Those numbers are worth a sneer or two. The biggest reactions the show got from me came from the painfully lame attempts at humor. At one point, Aimee's assistant says, "Some of these Christians are so pious they pious me off." Really. She says that. Later, one of Aimee's numerous suitors responds to one of her demands with, "Have it Yahweh."
The score to Scandalous is, at best, bland and ineffectual, with an over-reliance on big, long, belty notes. The lyrics make little impression, except when Gifford adds little grace notes to fit in an extra syllable, or tries to rhyme "piety" with "religiosity." But the final insult comes at the end of the show, when the hard-working cast members are forced to address the audience with hagiographic bullet points of all the Good Works that Aimee's still-extant church has accomplished since her death. I'm surprised they didn't take up a collection, although the producers may need to the money more than Aimee's church does. With an average ticket price of $23, Scandalous will be lucky if it makes it to Christmas.