Saw the Seattle production on closing night. Much, much stronger than I expected. Act I follows Aimee's early life (about which I knew nothing), historically contextualized (!) within the origins of the Charismatic movement, covers her two marriages (first to Semple and then to McPherson), portrays her as a bit of a St. Joan figure who took up preaching because the voice of God told her to do so, and concludes with her arrival in Los Angeles. Dramatically most of it's a bit rushed and perfunctory; the opening number is stirring, but nearly all the songs in Act I are bombastic, modern "Broadway belt"-style pieces, marked by just a touch of gospel, with big dynamics and trite lyrics. There's plenty of foreshadowing of the scandal and subsequent trial, but I still wasn't sure at intermission where the play would end up, or whether I'd like it.
Fortunately, Act II slackens the pace and digs into the story. We get to know an Aimee who's appealing but not perfect: she alienates her husband, who eventually divorces her; she pops pills (McPherson died of an accidental overdose of barbiturates at 53); she experiences both self-doubt and temptation, but there's never a whiff of insincerity. On the question of whether McPherson did or didn't have an affair with radio engineer Kenneth Ormiston, the play manages to come down squarely on the side of ambiguity. Its sympathies are with its heroine, of course, but it does get a little silly on the topic of how the charges in her criminal trial came to be dropped: it suggests that she blackmailed both William Randolph Hearst (by repeating the urban legend that he shot Thomas Ince aboard his yacht) and fellow L.A. evangelist "Fighting Bob" Shuler, an outspoken opponent of hers (by suggesting that Shuler used to frequent a brothel in Kansas City, when in fact Shuler apparently never lived there), and
that she arranged to have a key piece of trial evidence "accidentally" flushed down a courthouse toilet. For dramatic reasons it also places her third marriage before, not after, the scandal and trial. If it's strict historical accuracy you want, look elsewhere, but if you're interested in high-stakes drama with interesting characters and appealing songs, Act II delivers. Musically there's quite a shift in style compared to the first act: a Tin Pan Alley jazz feel takes over several of the songs; the lyrics get smarter; a Greek chorus of reporters helps drive the tale along with a catchy recurring number called "Hollywood Aimee"; and each of her two male love interests gets a solo number that's intimate and vulnerable, rather than big and brassy. No American preacher was more theatrical than McPherson, and Saving Aimee
has fun imagining what her tableaux and pageantry might have been like.
Auteur theory is alive and well here: perhaps it takes a Christian believer in Hollywood to write about Christian believers in Hollywood without turning them into caricatures (apart from the cheap shot at Fighting Bob), and Gifford is to be commended for knowing her stuff and making it credible and compelling. If Act I was perfunctory, perhaps it's because Gifford could hardly wait to tell us everything that happens in Act II, and wanted to set the stage as quickly as possible. I should think it's a rare thing on Broadway to see a warts-and-all portrayal of an evangelical Christian that makes her seem like a human being, but that's what we get with Saving Aimee.
Not that a musical by Sam Phillips wouldn't be interesting too.
Edited by mrmando, 05 November 2011 - 01:56 AM.