It’s hard to imagine a better team to assemble a new musical. James Graham: the prolific young playwright behind works including Best of Enemies, Quiz and The Vote. Rupert Goold: the Almeida’s artistic director who’s been involved in some of the best plays of the last decade. Jake Shears: the singer and songwriter behind the Scissor Sisters. And Elton John: no explanation required. The more interesting story would be if they somehow managed to mess up this dramatisation of the life of American televangelist Tammy Faye.
But they do not: it’s a brilliant, camp, glitter-ball of a musical that stands shoulder to shoulder with the very best.
It opens with Tammy on all fours on a doctor’s table about to receive a cancer diagnosis from the only homosexual proctologist in the United States; there were no women so he was “the next best thing”. It’s a smart way to set the tone for a musical that’s both intimate and irreverent, always looking for ways to raise a smile from Faye’s often tragic life.
We’re then zipped back in time to the start of the televangelist phenomenon in the 1960s, with religious leaders reasoning that “If Coke can teach the world to sing, we can teach the world to pray”. Tammy and her then-husband Jim Bakker, a pair of performers who use puppets to teach kids about Jesus, land a religious network almost by accident and become a TV phenomenon known for “putting the ‘fun’ in ‘fundamentalism’”.
Later they even open a kind of Christian theme park, before their world implodes when Bakker is charged with offences including fraud and rape. This bizarre tale is propelled by a series of genuinely catchy songs, all strong enough that you would actually want to listen to the soundtrack.
Elton’s DNA is all over the music, his unmistakable piano tunes providing a jazzy framework for Shears to work his lyrical magic. Tammy Faye, of course, gets all the best numbers, and Katie Brayben absolutely belts them out, combining the powerful voice we’ve already seen from her starring role in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical with a knack for accents that really brings Faye to life. Empty Hands and the emotional final number If You Came To See Me Cry are the pick of the bunch, but there isn’t a dud song all night.
Graham’s interest in politics, meanwhile, comes through in a subplot exploring the rise of Ronald Reagan and the marriage of the religious right to the Republican party, which continues to dominate American politics today.
There’s also plenty of camp humour – “The sound of the Lord, coming right in your ear!” – the pinnacle being a scene depicting gay actors playing biblical figures at Faye’s theme park, which caused fits of laughter throughout the theatre.
Bunny Christie’s pared-back set – a bank of stylised televisions – is rarely static, often peopled by more actors than I have ever seen at the Almeida; there are certainly enough roles to fill a bigger stage, which will be useful when this inevitably transfers to the West End and/or Broadway.
Criticism could be levelled at the lack of scrutiny into Faye’s knowledge of Bakker’s crimes; she’s presented as driven and outspoken but largely deaf to the increasing clamour of financial and sexual impropriety surrounding their ventures.
But this musical isn’t here to skewer Tammy Faye, it exists to celebrate her, and it does that in the best possible way: in a toe-tapping whirlwind of hairspray and sequins, all delivered with an evangelical zeal.