Saving Aimee Shines (A Review of Kathie Lee Gifford’s New Musical)

I just witnessed the official premiere of Saving Aimee at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater. First breath requires I honor the spectacular radiance of Saving Aimee’s lead, Carolee Carmello. Her portrayal of Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson is best categorized as anointed. It would be inappropriate to avoid religious imagery in relaying her gloriously captivating performance. Carmello anchors Saving Aimee with a nuanced, powerful, joyful representation of one of the most influential and complex women of the early 1900s.

Carmello frees Saving Aimee from tired evangelist cliches and creates a character who is powerful yet fragile, feminine yet transcendent, magnetic yet terribly alone. Carmello’s representation of Aimee occupies a vocal and emotional range that is simply staggering. She breathes in the glory, and out comes the magic. It is my sincere hope she will have the opportunity to bring her sacred performance to Broadway.

Along with Carolee Carmello, there are many highlights from the supporting cast. Judy Kaye, as Aimee’s mother Minnie, strikes the right balance between overbearing and protecting. Roz Ryan also brings needed humor and a whole lot of heart to her converted brothel owner, disciple of Aimee, ain’t gonna take anything from anyone role.

I’ve enjoyed watching Brandon O’Neill in the recent 5th Avenue productions of Guys and Dolls and Aladdin. His portrayal of two of Aimee’s love interests was both subtle and effective in advancing the story.

Ed Watts also does a masterful job of portraying two men at opposite ends of the spectrum. I am convinced many in the audience were not aware he played both Aimee’s first and third husband. He gives Aimee’s first husband, Robert Semple, a depth of kindness, goodness, and spiritual authenticity that is seldom seen in any artistic expression of a Pentecostal pastor. He contrasts this performance by presenting Aimee’s third husband as a shell of a person. Ed Watts’ performance is so varied, it is difficult to believe he inhabits both acts of the musical.

David Pomeranz and David Friedman bring us many lovely melodies and powerful anthems that capture the authority of Aimee’s voice, legacy and religious crusade. I particularly enjoyed the score’s vacillation between powerful hymns and gentle, heartfelt laments and love songs. I was truly captivated and stirred by the spirit of the music.

As the writer and composer of Saving Aimee, Kathie Lee Gifford has gone to great lengths to bring this musical to life. She has taken her admiration for a woman she clearly loves and turned it into a beautiful, joyful, musical about the power of dreams, passion, purpose and redemption. Her love for Aimee Semple McPherson is evident.

I am a Foursquare pastor. Aimee Semple McPherson founded the movement I now serve. I have always had a sincere love and respect for the complicated founder of my denomination. I feel that love was just given to me by God. It’s just something I cannot help doing. She was an amazing woman, who did amazing things, at a time when the voice of a strong woman was simply not valued in almost every area of American culture. Even so, she forged a way and a movement of God that was simply unstoppable. Even her own sins, failings, and shortcomings could not prevent her from leaving a lasting and fruitful legacy.

Kathie Lee Gifford is a talented lyricist with a keen awareness of the tension that embodied Sister Aimee’s life. Aimee chose a path that kept her from being accepted by almost every side of the religious spectrum, yet she was still loved by thousands upon thousands of faithful followers. She was too churchy for the pagans, and too pagan for the church. Too worldly for the saintly, too saintly for the world. Too joyful for the pharisees, and too vulnerable for a media machine that will chew you up and spit you out. Even so, God made her life into something beautiful, into something no man or person could ever defile.

It’s seems fitting that Kathie Lee Gifford would create a musical that will surely face the same criticisms. The churchy will most likely claim that Saving Aimee is not religious enough. And the irreligious will accuse Saving Aimee of being a tad bit preachy. Which in my mind makes Saving Aimee just right, a true testament to the complex life of Aimee Semple McPherson; a woman who transcends the cliches and rhetoric. A woman whose story could never be completely and accurately told by anyone but God.

She was more than a super evangelist or Hollywood media fodder. She was far more than a symbol of what is right or wrong with the church. She was more than all of these cookie cutter boxes we use to label those who have traveled before us. No, she was much more than that. . . . She was simply Aimee.

With this in mind, I want to thank Kathie Lee Gifford for once again introducing the public to this amazing woman of God. Thank you, for Saving Aimee.


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