Lightning Strikes at Signature Theatre
With apologies to David Letterman…the Ten Top Reasons to see the world premiere of the new musical at the Signature Theatre, "Saving Aimee":
Number 9 – Lovely lush orchestrations by Tony winner Bruce Coughlin.
Number 8 – Effective lighting by Chris Lee.
Number 7 – The use of microphones so you can actually hear every single lyric with sound by Robert Kaplowitz.
Number 6 – A Broadway caliber 13 piece orchestra under the capable baton of Jenny Cartney.
Number 5 – An amazing true story of a woman who defied a male dominant society in the early 20th Century and became the first woman to build her own religious temple and the first woman to hold a radio license.
Number 4 – A superb ensemble with amazing voices.
Number 2 – A chance to watch E. Faye Butler inaugurate a role as Emma Jo Schaeffer that could send her to stardom.
Number 1A – Director Eric Schaeffer who does a magical job directing and bringing this story to the stage.
Drum Role Please.
The Number 1 Reason to see "Saving Aimee"?
I've been a fan of Carmello for many years and recall her Tony-nominated role as Leo Frank's Jewish wife in "Parade", Abigail Adams in "1776", Oolie in "City of Angels" and Cordelia in "Falsettos" and recently she has been playing the leading role of "Donna" in the smash Broadway hit "Mamma Mia".
But wait till you see her tackle the complex role of a truly remarkable woman, Aimee Semple McPherson and gets the opportunity to cause tingling up your spine from the very first opening gospel number "Stand Up". This is a tour-de force performance which no one should miss.
The book by Kathy Lee Gifford takes McPherson from a teenager till her controversial death in 1944 from an overdose of sedatives and the use of headlines from newspapers projected on the rear of a spare but suitable set aids in the story-telling. She lived quite a remarkable life. Her fame was its peak in the 20s and early 30s. She was so well known, such a celebrity, that Cole Porter in "Anything Goes" based the character of Reno Sweeney, an evangelist/night club singer after her.
Johnny Mercer's lyrics in "Hooray for Hollywood" mention her as well.
Hooray for Hollywood
Where you're terrific if you're even good,
Where anyone at all from Shirley Temple
To Aimee Semple
Is equally understood.
Carmello playing "Aimee" as a 17-year old teenager has a beautiful number conveying her dream in an anthem about acting "Why Can't I". She desperately wants to be in a school production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream".
Her mother, who worked for the Salvation Army, was against any sort of acting for Aimee. Aimee Kennedy's life would change forever after she observed the Irish Pentecostal Preacher, Robert Semple (played with a delightful Irish accent by Steve Wilson). Aimee converts to Pentecostalism in 1908, marries Semple, travels to China on a conversion mission, has a child and in China the Rev. Semple died of dysentery.
There's a terrific Irish number sung and danced by the ensemble "That Sweet Lassie from Cork" with enjoyable choreography by Christopher d"Amboise. I wished this scene lasted longer and the show had more of this terrific dancing.
Aimee then married an accountant, Harold McPherson, in 1912, and she had a second child in 1913.
But, in 1915, she takes her children and begins her preaching. She sings "Follow Me" to Destiny and the audience gets to feel part of her congregation when a tent is unveiled over our heads.
McPherson comes across Emma Jo, a Madam played by E. Faye Butler who then explains how she makes her living in a terrific number that brings down the house, "A Girl's Gotta Do What a Girl's Gotta Do". Emma Jo joins McPherson with her preaching.
Carmello has a lovely duet with her second husband (Monley) towards the end of Act I where she questions her life in the waltz "Why Can't I Just Be a Woman". She wonders "Why do I need so much more."
Act I closes with a rousing "For Such a Time as This" by Aimee as her idea of building a Temple in Hollywood comes to fruition. By this time the audience was jumping to join with McPherson.
Act II begins with Emma Jo again bringing down the house with "God Will Provide", a phenomenal opening number. Emma Jo relates that Aimee has become the "P.T. Barnum of the Pulpit". Her huge church (capacity of 5,300) called the Angelus Temple opened in 1923 and actors wore skimpy costumes portraying Bible stories such as Samson and Delilah and Adam and Eve. Wait till you see Moses and the parting of the Red Sea in "Let My People Go"! While there's little comedy in Act I, there's plenty in these scenes.
Aimee's mother (Florence Lavey) sees the beginning of the end with a lovely ballad "Saving Aimee". Likewise, Emma Jo (E. Faye Butler) sees the beginning of Aimee's decline in "Emma Joe's Lament". This is followed by a lovely trio "Paying the Price" by Emma Jo, Aimee and her mother.
During the entire evening, McPherson's trial for fraud surrounding her questionable alleged drowning followed by an alleged kidnapping to Mexico, is used to tell her life story. Andrew Long plays the Prosecutor Asa Keyes and does a great job presenting the case against McPherson.
McPherson soon thereafter becomes frail and while in a wheel chair, Carmello describes her life in an emotional number "I Had a Fire".
So, there you have it. Do not use the excuse "I'm not going to see a musical by Kathy Lee Gifford" for not coming. Do not use the excuse "I don't want to see a show about an evangelical preacher." Come and see this show at the Signature BEFORE it becomes the huge hit I predict it will become on Broadway. And most importantly, come and see Carolee Carmello in a role that was written for her and a performance you will never forget.
"Saving Aimee" continues to May 13, 2007. Tickets range from $37 to $63 and are on sale through Tickets.com 800-955-5566 and online at www.signature-theatre.org.
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Photos by Scott Suchman - 1) E. Faye Butler; 2. Carolee Carmello; 3. Carolee Carmello and Adam Monley; 4) E. Faye Butler and ensemble