Kathie Lee Gifford has been knocking on the pearly gates of Broadway with “Saving Aimee” since 2007, when the show debuted at Virginia’s Signature Theater to mixed reviews. A musical depiction of the life of early 20th-century evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, it’s now been resurrected by director David Armstrong at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater. But it appears that in the intervening years no miracles have been worked on either the script or the score, which Gifford co-wrote with David Pomeranz and David Friedman. Despite an inspired performance by Carolee Carmello at its center, the show will require additional laying-on of hands before it’s ready to ascend.
As a subject, “Sister Aimee” McPherson is plenty rich — a fascinating jazz-age prototype of today’s tabloid celebrities. She dabbled in faith healing, married multiple times, pioneered the use of radio and motion pictures to spread the gospel, promoted integration and likely staged her own kidnapping to cover up an affair. The eventfulness of her life presents a challenge to a writer, however: What best serves as the core of the story? Gifford’s strategy seems to be to start at the beginning, when Semple was a girl growing up in Ontario, and race forward, occasionally flashing ahead to the 1926 grand jury that investigated her alleged kidnapping. Characters and relationships cartwheel by; even the sole ongoing conflict — between McPherson and her controlling mother (Judy Kaye) — is seemingly resolved in a flash midway through the show.
The litany of events is especially monotonous in the first act, a situation not helped by either the setting or the score. Walt Spangler’s set, a kind of “Dancing With the Stars”-meets-“Metropolis” flight of stairs rising to a pulpit backed by an onstage band, is dramatic but too static for the first half of the show. And the songs, gospel-style tunes that keep bumping up a key to heighten the drama, are all calibrated at the same over-the-top emotional level. The one song that provides a respite, a bluesy “Girl’s Gotta Do What a Girl’s Gotta Do” delivered by Roz Ryan, belongs to a brothel scene that unfortunately seems extraneous to the plot.
The second act improves, as McPherson’s adventures in Hollywood lend some razzle-dazzle to the proceedings. Set pieces move on and off to represent a nightclub, an office, and a proscenium at McPherson’s Foursquare Church, where lively production numbers are staged. The evangelist’s budding relationship with radio engineer Kenneth Ormiston (Brandon O’Neill) starts out especially promising, leading to a lovely, Tin Pan Alley-sounding ballad. But Ormiston, too, quickly outlives his usefulness to the story and disappears.
The cast members, including O’Neill, Charles Leggett, Ed Watts and others, do a fine job playing multiple roles, including Charlie Chaplin and William Randolph Hearst making appearances along the way). But “Saving Aimee’s” strongest asset by far is Carmello (“The Addams Family,” “Mamma Mia!”), who animates “the P.T. Barnum of the pulpit” with energy and conviction. Appearing in almost every scene in the nearly three-hour show, her clarion voice never flags and as Aimee’s life parades by, she morphs convincingly from headstrong girl to determined star. Whatever skeptics may say of “Saving Aimee” overall, there is no room for doubt when it comes to Carmello’s performance. The ovation she drew at the end of the night made it clear she turned everyone in the theater into true believers.
Musical numbers: “Prelude,” “Stand Up!,” “For Such a Time as This 1,” “Why Can’t I?,” “He Will Be My Home,” “He Will Be My Home (Reprise),” “Oh, the Power,” “That Sweet Lassie from Cork,” “Come Whatever May,” “You’ll Be Safe Here with Me,” “Follow Me,” “A Girl’s Gotta Do What a Girl’s Gotta Do,” “Follow Me (Reprise),” “For Such a Time as This 2,” “Hollywood Aimee 1,” “Adam and Eve,” “Foursquare Hymn/Hollywood Aimee 2,” “Samson and Delilah,” “Hollywood Aimee 3,” “Moses and Pharaoh,” “Hollywood Aimee 4,” “It’s Just You,” “This Time I’ll Blame It on Love,” “Hollywood Aimee 5,” “Lost or Found? / The Trial,” “He Will Be My Home (Reprise),” “Oh, the Power (Reprise),” “I Have a Fire”