Review: TAMMY FAYE, Almeida Theatre

A new musical premiere by Elton John, Jake Shears, and James Graham.

By: Oct. 26, 2022
Review: TAMMY FAYE, Almeida Theatre
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Review: TAMMY FAYE, Almeida Theatre There's been a sudden resurgence in Tammy Faye Bakker's popularity this past year. The American televangelist won Jessica Chastain an Academy Award for The Eyes of Tammy Faye and is now the subject of a brand new musical penned by Elton John, Scissor Sisters' own Jake Shears, and James Graham. On paper, it looks like quite the assorted trio with the global superstar curating the music, Graham the book, and Shears the lyrics.

Rupert Goold directs a sanitised tale of faith, love, and financial fraud with a cast led by Andrew Rannells and Katie Brayben as the Bakkers - the couple who changed the face of American Christianity by broadcasting "24 hours per day, seven days a week until the second coming" in the 70s and 80s. It's a camp production, clearly pre-packaged for the West End, that's too abridged in its retelling of the story to hit the mark.

A general, glitzy pop score that inevitably slips into a gospel revival and mildly exciting lyrics that mostly only do the job are followed by an outstanding book by Graham. He is just as unafraid of bringing politics to the pews as he is irreverent and profane in his humour. He underscores Tammy and Jim's story with a subtext that's rich in its commentary, but the satire in his text reaches deaf ears on the musical side of things. From the changes in presidential leadership received with acquiescence or condemnation to the echos of the conservative values that scarily resemble those uttered these days, Tammy Faye is surprisingly political.

Alongside the book, it's the performances that save the show from utter doom. Brayben brings the house down and reconfirms herself as a superstar in the musical theatre firmament. She grows progressively more heartbreaking while Jim confesses his affairs and the rape of a secretary before they lose everything. Her rise to fame and swift fall from grace is punctuated by duets with Rannells, but it's safe to say this is the Katie Brayben show, crowned by the rare five-star number "If You Came To See Me Cry".

Rannells offers a bumbling, quirky Reverend who anxiously struggles with the cameras at the start and compares himself to his self-assured wife with nerves of steel and gargantuan ambition. Those who saw his performance in The Book of Mormon all those years ago could say they've seen him in Tammy Faye, he doesn't provide anything too remarkable, but is a great foil to Brayben. The pair is surrounded by a collection of excellent portrayals, with Zubin Varla leading the charge as the sullen, slow-spoken, villainous Reverend Jerry Falwell.

Like any good antagonist, he has a cracking tune in "Satellite of God", where he bemoans the lack of a satellite to broadcast his own preachings worldwide (in real life, this didn't stop him from eventually founding a megachurch in Virginia). Clever casting allows the ensemble to go from Tammy's detractors to her chorus boys seamlessly in an amusing move by Goold. His vision is clear and specific as he directs a big showy show that's begging to be transferred but ultimately doesn't deserve it.

Lynne Page's choreography is cheesy, but maintains the over-the-top, ditzy tone of the project - which is in line with the essence of Tammy Faye. It's a shame that the piece mostly plays for laughs, trying not to take itself too seriously when it definitely should. This production presents the public perception of the Bakkers, PTL Network, and Heritage USA (the brainchild of Jim, a Christian residential complex with a theme park and other attractions) quite well, but there's very little introspection in the exploration of what made them so attractive to their audience.

The sensationalisation of faith and the monetisation of viewership are underplayed and the fascination with the power of universal televisual reach is under-exploited, as is the covert narcissism disguised as altruism and goodwill of most televangelists. They gloss over many aspects of Tammy Faye and Jim's lives, like her eventual severe addiction and the ramifications of his sexual misconduct. All in all, while the team behind the musical is outstanding, their offering, sadly, is merely mediocre as a whole.

Tammy Faye runs at the Almeida Theatre until 3 December.

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner


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