After two weeks of previews, Thursday, October 20th marked the opening night of Saving Aimee, at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. Although new to the Seattle stage, Saving Aimee is hardly a new production. Kathie Lee Gifford, co-host of the fourth hour of NBC’s Today Show, has been penning the musical for over ten years.
Saving Aimee is the true-life story of Aimee Semple McPherson, a woman before her time and preacher to the stars in the 1920’s. In her own words, Gifford describes Aimee as “the greatest person no one has ever heard of.”
In a feature article posted October 20th on Today.com, Gifford said, “I’ve literally written 10 musicals in 10 years. It’s more like 15 musicals. I mean, which musical do you write? Aimee the feminist? Aimee the preacher? Aimee the mother? Aimee the whore? Its sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll without the rock ‘n’ roll.”
All her hard work seems to have paid off. The opening night’s performance went over without a hitch. Strolling in with her husband, Frank, by her side, Kathie Lee looked stunning and yet without the air of celebrity. She graciously attended to theatregoers when approached and didn’t overshadow the production.
Throughout Saving Aimee, her character is literally and figuratively put on trial. I can’t think of a better person to write about Aimee than Kathie Lee, who knows a thing or two about being controversial. She is one of those celebrities who are condemned one day for being “too Christian” and another for not being “Christian enough.” But Kathie Lee makes no bones about being perfect. In fact, in a radio interview for SPRIT 105.3 FM, Kathie Lee said, “I’m not perfect. I make a terrible Christian.” Still, she has to continually defend herself. I sat nearby a reporter who was scheduled to do an interview with Gifford and was complaining loudly during intermission that he resented the fact that he would be limited to what he could ask Gifford about her personal life. Rather than discuss the musical, he wanted to know about her views about Anita Bryant, leader of the Save Our Children coalition, the first organized opposition to the gay rights movement of the 1970s. “I am a journalist!” he wailed. “I will not be censured!”
But Thursday’s performance wasn’t all about Kathie Lee. In fact, if you didn’t see her, you wouldn’t have even known she was there. No, the night belonged to the actors, singers and musicians, as it should be. But the production opens a Pandora box of opportunities for critics to judge not only Kathie Lee, but also Aimee and the Foursquare church at large. I suspect many Foursquare churchgoers are unfamiliar with some McPherson’s antics and Saving Aimee just might make one wonder, “what kind of church do I belong to?” It’s human nature for us to want our heroes to be perfect and we are always disappointed when they fall. We forget to give the same grace we want from others when we mess up.
The production is quite different from others musicals at the 5th Avenue. Right from the beginning, the orchestra is featured at the top of a giant staircase in costume no less, instead of hidden in the pit under the stage. The performers would move up and down those stairs without handrails, and I was just sure someone would fall off.
The first half of the musical tells of Aimee’s humble beginning and fighting with her mother. The teen and Millie butt heads while James, Amiee’s father, tries to be more rational. At first, Aimee questions everything her parents believe in but changes her tune when she meets evangelist Robert Semple. Not only does she fall in love with the man, but also she is consumed with thoughts of saving souls, which then causes her mother to worry even more that Aimee might be going overboard with religion.
Amiee gets married, travels to China, buries a husband, gives birth to a baby girl, meets a new friend, remarries, has a second child, suffers a strange illness, and hold huge tent meetings. This is just the first half of the story!
The second half begins to show where Aimee’s roads of good intentions eventually lead her. Instead of having to run to “sinners” she would build a temple in Hollywood, where the “sinners” would come to her. We see how she hired some of the biggest actors at the time to portray bible characters with elaborate sets. Her love of theatre takes over and loses sound judgment.
The book and lyrics for Saving Aimee where written by Gifford, but the music was written by David Pomeranz and David Friedmane. David Armstrong once again guides the show as Executive Producer and Artistic Director. Broadway star, Carolee Carmello, portrays Aimee who narrates her own story. Amazingly, Carmello not only has an incredible voice but has a huge acting range as well. She was very believable as a 17-year-old girl one moment and a strong, mature woman the next. Aimee is not an easy character to portray. She is “up” one scene and “down” the next. In fact, it is speculated that the real Aimee may have been bi-polar in real life, which may explain some of her crazy antics.
Carmello is joined on stage with Judy Kaye portraying Minnie, Amiee’s mother. Minnie is a Salvation Army leader. Ed Watts does double duty as the inspirational preacher, Robert Semple for the first half and ladies man, David Hutton, for the second half. Brandon O’Neill, last seen on the 5th Avenue stage as Kassim in Disney’s Aladdin, also plays two roles as Aimee’s second husband, Harold McPherson and the married soundman, Kenneth Ormiston, that Aimee was rumored to have an affair with. But besides Carmello, the actress who was the real stand out was Roz Ryan who portrays a madam who turns here life over to Jesus and helps Aimee with her ministry.
Except for a few outstanding numbers, including the triumphant Stand Up, and the inspirational For Such a Time as This, the songs of this musical take a back seat to the incredible story. As one character proclaims, “You just can’t make this stuff up!” According to Gifford, the title of Saving Aimee has two meanings. For one, she is on a mission to save souls, but she loses her way and has to be saved herself. It ends on a redemptive note, but not as much as I would have liked to have seen.
Amiee did more with her life than any of us can ever imagine. She, like many humans before her, did great things but also did great mistakes. In an excerpt from “Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America,” featured in the program, author Matthew Avery Sutton was asked, “What Aimee a con artist or a true believer?” He responded with, “A true believer. A truly flawed true believer. She never conned people. But she was not perfect. Like many people, she was at times seduced by power, which in turn led her to make poor choices. She loved, she hated, she rejoiced, and she cried. At the same time, she transformed American history is significant ways.”
Saving Aimee continues now through October 29 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8:00 p.m. Thursday-Saturdays, and 7:00 p.m. on Sundays. The theatre is located at 1308 5th Avenue, Seattle 98101. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 206.625.1900.