A small miracle from beyond the grave of a long-dead faith healer, Kathie Lee Gifford’s new tuner about evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, “Saving Aimee,” is an engaging little musical with a compelling storyline and plenty of spunk. Debuting at Signature Theater, the show is the second musical from Gifford, following 2005’s tepidly received “Under the Bridge,” which she wrote and produced. Like “Bridge,” this one features music by David Pomeranz (along with David Friedman) and was penned in collaboration with Signature Theater a.d. Eric Schaeffer, who directs.
This time out, more of the right ingredients have been acquired — a generally well-written book that doesn’t take itself too seriously (OK, it does drag some in the second act and couldn’t be more linear, but both faults are fixable); clever lyrics that actually propel and embellish the story rather than clutter it with corn; and, best of all, a pleasingly melodic and varied score.
That’s not to forget an extremely able cast headed by Carolee Carmello, whose pure soprano voice blows the construction dust off the Signature Theater’s new Max Theater.
The script follows the turbulent life of McPherson (Carmello), a Canadian woman born in 1890 and influenced by a domineering, Bible-thumping mother. Her first marriage to an Irish preacher ends in his untimely death three years later, but the urge to minister lives on.
She becomes a famous evangelist in Los Angeles, known for adding showbiz pizzazz to her fiery sermons and faith-healing demonstrations. Before her death in 1944 from an overdose of barbiturates, the rebellious McPherson experiences two more marriages, several love affairs and one high-profile trial about an alleged kidnapping. In short, it’s a life of piety and purpose onstage and making whoopee off.
All is contained in Gifford’s exceedingly thorough book, ripping nonstop from one crisis to another under Schaeffer’s free-flowing direction. Pomeranz and Friedman break up the action with an enjoyable blend of tunes that opens with the spirited “Stand Up!”; highlights include an Irish jig, a rousing spiritual, some big ensemble numbers, and Aimee’s signature tune, “Why Can’t I Just Be a Woman?”
The indefatigable Carmello (whose Broadway credits include “Mamma Mia!” and the short-lived “Lestat”) transitions nicely through life’s stages from impetuous daughter to mature woman, with plenty of energy to run up set designer Walt Spangler’s stairs and belt out tunes.
Another memorable perf is offered by E. Faye Butler, who inserts valuable comic relief and a glorious voice as prostitute-turned-religious cohort Emma Jo. Her brothel number, “A Girl’s Gotta Do What a Girl’s Gotta Do,” is terrific.
Ed Dixon excels doing double duty as the sympathetic father and rival preacher who excoriates McPherson as the “P.T. Barnum of the pulpit.” He says it all in his big number, “Demon in a Dress.”
Steve Wilson and Adam Monley each slip easily into multiple roles that include brief stints as husbands, while Florence Lacey is just right as the mother. As the bombastic district attorney Asa Keyes, Andrew Long keeps the pot boiling around McPherson’s controversial career.