Music by Elton John
Lyrics by Jake Shears
Book by James Graham
Directed by Rupert Goold
Almeida Theatre – until 3rd December 2022
An ambitious new musical at a major producing theatre from a team of internationally renowned powerhouse creatives, with a uniformly magnificent cast, featuring the UK debut of a beloved Broadway star (Andrew Rannells) and the greatest leading performance by any actress (Katie Brayben, surely in line for a second Olivier here) in an original British tuner since Elaine Paige as Evita, is cause for rejoicing.
Charting the rise and fall of controversial American televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker (Jessica Chastain won the 2021 Oscar for playing her in the recent biopic), this Almeida extravaganza is flashy but thought-provoking, a musical that succeeds in giving audiences a rollicking good time while never leaving one in any doubt that there is a serious intellect at play under the sequins, mega make-up, elaborate wiggage and showstopping numbers.
Is it worth seeing? Hell yes (if you can snaffle a return). Is it perfect? Actually, no. Richly enjoyable though it is, a certain amount of work needs to happen before it becomes a great example of the genre. Given that the Islington run totally sold out within days of going on sale (the magical creative triumvirate of Elton John, Scissor Sister’s Jake Shears and multi-award winning playwright James Graham saw to that) and rumours already swirl about a swift transfer, whether that work will take place is anybody’s guess, but it would be a pity if it doesn’t, as Tammy Faye, in Rupert Goold’s witty, fast-moving production, is so close to being an absolute world beater.
Many of the individual elements are already terrific. The lyrics, surprisingly sophisticated and heartfelt when not incorrigibly innuendo-laden (a gospel bop entitled “He’s Inside Me” is particularly fun), are some of the finest I’ve heard in ages: Jake Shears shows the same gift for camp poetry and acerbic wit as when writing for the Scissors Sisters; his work here is innately theatrical and it’s a shame that the raucous sound design sometimes renders a small portions of it unintelligible. Elton John’s stirring music -with a few exceptions- isn’t particularly memorable (there’s little here to match the best bits in Billy Elliot or The Lion King, or even Aida) but attractively pastiches gospel, country, blues, disco and torch songs. It sounds great but is seldom distinctive. Tammy Faye’s 11 o’clock number “If You Came To See Me Cry”, coming after her fortune, marriage and credibility have all been lost, and delivered with open-hearted virtuosity and a stratospheric belt by the miraculous Ms Brayben, could become a showtune standard. So could the cynical “Satellite of God”, a beguilingly strange statement of sinister intent for her greatest adversary, the pastor and conservative activist Jerry Falwell (Zubin Varla, brilliant).
James Graham’s book may be the show’s greatest strength (apart from the cast) but also one of its most obvious, if fixable, drawbacks. Graham displays his characteristic chutzpah at presenting serious themes and real life people juxtaposed with a slick of showbiz glitz (Tammy Faye’s dramatis personae includes the Pope, Billy Graham and the Archbishop of Canterbury). However, the script here, while intermittently brilliant, is so over-stuffed with characters and ideas that some pretty vital areas of Bakker’s story feel glossed over or rushed, especially in the second half which moves at a bewildering lick in charting her fall from grace, and never clarifies how complicit Tammy Faye was in the siphoning off of millions of dollars, or how aware she was of her husband Jim’s extramarital activities. And this is without really telling us anything about her early life or her post-Bakker marriage to Roe Messner.
The ambiguity of the storytelling may be intentional but the tone is inconsistent: for instance, an opening scene where our heroine banters with a gay proctologist may reflect the un-PC nature of the time (the late 90s) but feels strangely homophobic when considered against the later sequences that depict what a force for kindness and tolerance Tammy Faye was to gay people. If anything, and given the sheer outlandishness of American televangelism and the mania surrounding it, both Graham’s book and Goold’s production could afford to go bigger, weirder and more outrageous. The act one finale which sees Tammy Faye weeping over her husband’s misdemeanours then turning it around, getting mic’d up then emoting the same song BIG on live television as part of a religious broadcast is sheer showbiz, and a beautiful example of storytelling and manipulation in musical theatre. Brayben’s astounding performance at this point sends theatregoers into the interval in something approaching stunned rapture.
Bunny Christie’s set of a slightly flimsy-looking moving tower of TV screens out of which characters pop as though in a demented musical version of Celebrity Squares, is appropriate for the television milieu in which the Bakkers found fame but feels a bit characterless and lacking in pizzazz compared to everything else on offer. That is certainly not an accusation one could make of Katrina Lindsay’s garish costumes and wigs, or Lynne Page’s showy choreography. Unlike in American Psycho or Spring Awakening, there are moments when the exuberance and sheer scale of this production seem a little hemmed in on the Almeida stage. Tammy Faye isn’t quite an epic musical on the Evita scale but it needs more room to breathe than it currently has.
What is unquestionably epic is Katie Brayben’s rambunctious star turn. Vocally she is breathtaking, but the detail in the acting is phenomenal….the way she ages up and down by a tilt of the head, bend of the spine, a tiny change in vocal timbre….it’s a masterclass, as truthful as it is flamboyant. In lesser hands, this Tammy Faye could be a grotesque, but Brayben makes her live, breathe and feel. Stunning.
The rest of the company are magnificent too. Andrew Rannells has enough charisma to power the electric grid and if at first his performance seems pretty close to his acclaimed original Elder in The Book of Mormon with it’s pop-eyed cheer and skewed wholesomeness, when the dramatic stakes heighten as Jim’s story darkens, Rannells really goes there, and he utterly convinces.
There’s lovely work, energised but detailed, from Richard Dempsey as a feckless business partner, Ashley Campbell as an AIDS sufferer whose life is turned around by Tammy Faye’s kindness, and Gemma Sutton as a young woman royally screwed over by Jim. Steve John Shepherd is an absolute riot as a comically dyspeptic Archbishop and a chilling, smiley Ronald Reagan. Peter Caulfield’s frenetically camp take on Billy Graham is beyond fabulous. At the performance I saw, Georgia Louise was on instead of Amy Booth-Steel as one of the less forward thinking of the Bakkers’s allies, and she brilliantly captures the dangerous mixture of downhome sweetness and poisonous bigotry, plus she sings like a dream.
It will be fascinating to see what happens next with this; I’ve no doubt it’ll go into the West End but even that may not be the final destination. It ultimately screams Broadway transfer and if that’s the case then a certain amount of reworking is essential, as New York critics tend to be a lot less forgiving than their UK counterparts when it comes to a musical’s shortcomings. While there are certainly American actresses who would eat the scenery in the glamorous lead role (somebody put Rachel York, Elizabeth Stanley and Kerry Butler on standby), it’s hard to imagine anybody giving us a stage Tammy Faye as authentic, multi-faceted and downright thrilling as Ms Brayben. It’s great entertainment but she elevates it above even that.