God Bless Tammy Faye!
If you need a hit show, you get Rupert Goold on the phone.
Tammy Faye Bakker gets the 325-seat Almeida treatment in a new musical penned by Elton John, James Graham and Jake Shears.
And now, at last, directed by Goold, Tammy Faye – A New Musical starring Katie Brayben and Andrew Rannells, officially opens. He and choreographer Lynn Page deliver the glitterball goods.
Quick recap: Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker helped expand Christian broadcasting from a niche into an insane empire via their Praise The Lord (PTL) satellite network. A Christian couple who spectacularly fell from grace.
I went to the very first preview (two have been cancelled due to cast injury and technical delay) and thought it was a tart, wry and quirky show with legs.
First, let’s unpack what this new (largely) British musical gets right. It understands Faye as a gay icon, earning both sympathy and ridicule, and our heroine emerges with a measure of dignity intact.
Granted, in the cold light of 2022, it’s easy to argue that the sold out run was simply the latest power move from a theatre whose ascent to theatre dominance has been signposted by a succession of smart marketing, big names and artistic brilliance.
Similarly, it would be easy to blame one’s emotional response on the ongoing disintegration of civilisation.
Religion, politics, sex and money are all equal and the story of the rise is much more substantial than that of the fall.
That said, Tammy Faye gives you everything you could possibly want, and maybe it’s a victim of its own gargantuan accomplishment at times. (Each cast member has roughly 10 looks, with Tammy Faye’s character coming in at around a dozen — there are 15 poppy-slash-rock-slash-honky songs.)
Still, once you add Elton John‘s songs into the mix — and Tammy (Brayben) sings in most of them — there’s no time for coherence, let alone subtlety. (There is a song called ’He’s Inside Me’)
Yet most effectively, concluding Act One gospel ballad ‘Empty Hands’ things click. There are several poignant vignettes, that strike a chord with anyone who’s come face to face with the fact that an idol – whether it’s a televangelist, or even a lover – is a human being.
Rannells is entertaining and effective as closeted husband Jim.
Bunny Christie’s snazzy Celebrity Square-style designs, a reliable star of any show, do everything they can to convey the kooky world of the right wing televangelist.
Elsewhere in the musical, the ensemble are working overtime to keep things interesting. There is a lot of breaking of the fourth wall. A lot.
Furthermore, it’s a funny, smart script, loaded with jokes. Graham’s book puts the ‘fun in Christian fundamentalism’.
Things pick up in Act Two. Here Faye is seen as a woman who made a career of living her best life. Slick 11’ O Clock number ‘Prime Time’ is exhilarating, I think.
A dazzling and award-worthy performance from Brayben playing a central character full of tensions and contradictions, is reason enough to see this show. Her performance transcends the show.
Musicals are difficult and expensive. I won’t reveal too much more, except to say that the finale (when it arrives) is euphoric, poetic, and moving.
In the Bible love is mentioned 489 times, hate 89 times.
“Love more than hate,” Tammy Faye cautions.
Tammy Faye is at the Almeida theatre, London, to 3 December.