NEW YORK — There's not much Carolee Carmello doesn't do in her new Broadway musical.
The Tony Award-nominated actress ages 20 years and spends much of it dressed like a nurse, except the time when she's dressed like a naughty Biblical Delilah. She belts out terrible song after terrible song. She faces off against the Ku Klux Klan, hands out roses to the audience and endures a rain of fake frogs.
But try as she might – and Carmello was ordered by a physician to be put on vocal rest the day before its opening night – nothing can save her "Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson," a musical as overstuffed and uninspired as its title suggests.
An endless – 2 1/2 hours, but seemingly longer – biography of the controversial 1920s-era Pentecostal evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, the musical has a book and lyrics by TV host Kathie Lee Gifford, who proves she's not going to give up her day job anytime soon. Music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman is almost absurd, linking one overwrought tune to another and then stuffing in another. Airport waiting lounges have better piped in music.
The tale of McPherson is something of Gifford's Moby Dick, a project she's been writing for a dozen years. The preacher is certainly a fascinating figure: She was a pioneer in radio evangelism who incorporated vaudeville elements in her sermons, considered the P.T. Barnum of the pulpit.
She fed millions during the Great Depression, but also had a mysterious five-week disappearance in 1926 that many believed was a fling with a married man. She died of a drug overdose in 1944.
But what opened Thursday at the Neil Simon Theatre is insipid and patronizing, a work that seems more at home in a church parking lot than on Broadway. The most aggravating thing is, at the end, the audience is no closer to understanding what really motivated McPherson at all.
Gifford, a proud Christian, says she's written a warts-and-all portrait, but don't believe it: It's pure hagiography, except when it veers into camp, an endearing Gifford quality. (Sample lyric from the ensemble when McPherson disappears: "Lost or found?/Is she lost at sea/or just fooling around?")
It's also got all the stereotypes you'd expect these days – a sassy black lady (Roz Ryan, still winning despite the sins), blissful tambourine bangers and old timey reporters yelling out questions like, "The miracles. How do you do it?"
They're not needed, mainly because Gifford ladles out huge chunks of exposition as if we can't be trusted to follow the tale. (Sample statement from the heroine: "I'm going to take everything they're using in Hollywood to build the Devil's Kingdom and I'm going to use it to build God's. I'm going to give the people what they want while I'm giving them what they need.")
Director David Armstrong has apparently decided to allow this grotesque mockery of a musical to go on unedited. That explains why, instead of one illustrated sermon, we get two. And why McPherson's trial goes on longer than most real court cases. One scene has McPherson doing a 400-word monologue.
Oddly, the songs and the book seem written by two different people since they step on each other's toes so much, usually when one repeats what the other just said.
Armstrong also has allowed some of the most unsubtle dialogue ever heard to clang on stage. "I cannot ignore the voice of God. Wherever it leads me," says McPherson to her mother.
"Even if it means losing your mother?" her mother (a valiant Candy Buckley) asks, quivering, of course.
"Come whatever may," her daughter replies.
George Hearn, who plays McPherson's father and later a rival preacher, is excellent and deserves better material. But not enough can be said about Carmello, who throws all she's got into this. On opening night, a metal hook connected to a section of fabric became stuck onstage and it was Carmello – of course – who came to the rescue.
Pity she couldn't rescue herself from this unholy work.