It's a good thing my husband drove us home to Tacoma from Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre Thursday night, because my mind was not on the road. It took me the whole trip and part of today, to absorb and analyze my impressions of the new musical "Saving Aimee." It's an aural and visual feast, the result of a rich combination of talents both on and off stage. But in addition to great music, acting, and humor, it also gives you plenty to think about.
I'd been curious to see how the story of controversial female evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944), would translate into a musical. The production satisfied my curiosity in surprising ways, and it introduced me to an influential character from history, one I didn't know about. By now, she's almost forgotten. But not for long.
"Saving Aimee" tells how McPherson came from a humble background only to acquire fame, fortune, and a huge following, as the first evangelist preacher to move religion into the Hollywood arena, turning it into show business. She designed the template future televangelists would follow. A strong, dynamic, and fascinating public figure, McPherson seemed the embodiment of contradiction. She was a true believer who, it was claimed, healed the sick, and she definitely gave much of her wealth to the poor and disenfranchised. And yet she also left an apparently loving husband, and could not have had much time for her two children during her rise to stardom.
McPherson founded the Foursquare Church, a Pentecostal denomination now having a presence in about 140 countries around the globe. The grand Angeles Temple she designed and opened in Los Angeles held 5,300 people and would fill to capacity, leaving others waiting to get inside. Her religious services equalled theatrical productions, complete with all the drama, costumes, scenery, music and props (including live animals) that exemplified the glamour of Hollywood at the time. To serve the needs of this extravaganza, she wrote 13 opera and 175 songs. McPherson broke new ground as the first woman to preach over the airwaves and started her own radio show as well as the L.I.F.E. Bible College.
McPherson became a media sensation for her dramatic preaching, faith healing, romantic life, and the controversy surrounding her claim of being kidnapped, when she disappeared for about a month in 1926. Many people thought she fabricated this story to cover rumors of an affair. She also became addicted to prescription drugs and suffered a nervous breakdown. This musical portrays McPherson sympathetically, as a victim of the press. But anecdotes from those who knew her, or lived during those time, offer views of a complex personality with moral strengths and weaknesses.
Part of my curiosity about how this character's story would come across had to do with religion. "Saving Aimee" is not out to save souls, although I'm not saying it's impossible that someone eager to be saved might not have been affected that way. Certainly the cleverly designed stage set that features tall staircases running up each side and culminates in a towering pulpit, and the brilliant spotlight that makes "Sister Aimee's" white gown take on a heavenly glow, could send shivers down the spines of the repentant. Instead of preaching though, the musical examines what drives us, human frailty, and the complicated nature of many peoples' lives. It presents those aspects of organized religion that can totally captivate some of us and make others of us squirm. Set in a time of extremes, with a fragile affluence that would soon crash along with the stock market, it felt relevant to the economically, politically, and theologically divided America we live in today.
The show comes along as yet another totally new musical produced by The 5th Avenue Theatre, one of ten in the past 11 years, four of which have gone on to Broadway and two of which won Tony Awards. Pretty impressive. No wonder Seattle, along with New York and Chicago, ranks among the top three cities in America for musical theater. The enthusiastic crowd that night seemed to prove the point of The 5th's mission to offer Seattle audiences only the highest quality productions. This one brings together a fine bunch of songs powerfully delivered, characters you'll always remember, and a set designed with mulitple functions that allowed scenes to flow smoothly from one to another. Let's hear it for the stage and lighting crews. Sometimes the action moved right out into, or came from the audience. At one point, a huge golden cloth billows out over the seats for a dramatic effect you'll have to see in context to understand.
Well-known TV personality, Kathie Lee Gifford, wrote the book, lyrics, and some of the music for "Saving Aimee." She says she was inspired by, and eventually obsessed by, the life story of McPherson, referring to her as "the most famous woman you've never heard of." With music by composers David Pomeranz and David Friedman, plus inspired direction from the theater's own Executive Director and Artistic Director David Armstrong, it certainly comes with great credentials. Quite a number of seats on Thursday's opening night were occupied by people from New York's musical theater scene, as were some of the roles.
I can't offer enough praise for actress Carolee Carmello, who played Aimee. She has appeared in ten Broadway shows, a number of Off-Broadway shows, television productions, touring productions, and more and it's easy to see why. In my opinion, she nailed it. Her strong singing voice, charisma, and fine acting abilities brought the character to life.
Other members of the cast with Broadway experience were Ed Watts (as Robert Semple and David Hutton) and Roz Ryan (as Emma Jo.) Exceptional local talent included Judy Kaye (as Minnie, Aimee's mother), Brandon O'Neill (as McPherson and Ormiston), Ed Dixon (as Aimee's father James and preacher Brother Bob), Charles Leggett ( as Asa Keyes) plus the 14 members of the ensemble. All did outstanding jobs. I saw some familiar faces and expect to watch the careers of many of these artists continue to advance within the field of creative energy this theater generates. But their talent is only part of the reason the audience rose for a standing ovation at the end. I applauded the orchestra, choreography, stage sets, lighting, costumes, hair and makeup, and everyone else who contributed too. As always, they each added layers of rich emotion and realistic texture to the experience.
Whether or not "Saving Aimee" represented McPherson accurately, or the way you personally think it should have, you still feel the power of this grand old theater and those who call it home. What overwhelmed me, and what I still pondered as I went to bed about 1 a.m., was how to adequately describe the magic that results when the creative efforts of so many, many people, on and off the stage, combine in perfect harmony.
For those of you who might view the arts as less than vital to the health of a society, please open your eyes. Give yourself the opportunity to discover this fine example of teamwork, where the contributions of all matter equally, and where everyone believes in giving their best effort toward a common goal. That kind of energy and focus contains a power that makes magic happen, whether in a show or a society. We need creative people to solve all kinds of problems. Art nurtures creativity.
No place ever felt like a more perfect setting for magic than The 5th Avenue Theatre. When I had the opportunity to interview David Armstrong a few months ago, he said to me, "The magic of the show happens where the energy of the audience and the energy of the performers meet. You just feel completely drawn in and you can lose yourself entirely in the experience on the stage." Give it a try. Feel uplifted.
"Saving Aimee" closes on October 29, so don't miss your chance to see the West Coast debut of a show people will be talking about. You can order tickets here: BOX OFFICE
Congratulations to everyone involved.