Simon Jenner in north London
29 October 2022
Tammy Faye: A New Musical – making its world premiere at the Almeida Theatre – is blessed with a team led by Elton John (music), Scissor Scissors’ singer/songwriter Jake Shears (lyrics), and dramatist James Graham (book).
Andrew Rannells and Katie Brayben. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
Tammy Faye is the glam US evangelist who blazed and fell with her husband Jim Bakker in the 1970s–80s: but not – as depicted here – for the Right reasons. Faye’s secular beatification though is directly related to it. The story of the evangelist who stepped out of her natural conservative territory to embrace a man with AIDS on TV in October 1985 is set against the forces of reaction.
If the music – and Tom Dearing writes some as well orchestrating it – is the draw, Shears’ lyrics are blistering, and Graham’s book is so good that you wish there was a text, as one-liners zing by at the speed of cues for the next song. It’s all directed by Rupert Goold with the quality and assurance of the Almeida’s Oliver Award-winning production of musical Spring Awakening last December; if very different.
Topped and tailed (literally, as you’ll find out) with an event in 2007, Tammy Faye charts the rise of charismatic televangelists Tammy Faye (Katie Brayben) and her first husband and TV co-star Jim Bakker (Andrew Rannells). Vocally it’s a match made in Islington, and ought to travel. Brayben’s coloratura soprano deploys a rich middle register too, as Rannells’ lyric tenor irradiates wholesomeness with the force of gamma-rays.
The first half, charting the rise of the “moppet”-wielding evangelist personalities as they break into TV and then build a financial empire through a TV station, is vertiginous. They want to populate the studios like “Disney – but with good people”. Their early career with children’s hand-puppets though proves emblematic. Faye’s star rises as Bakker’s character sets, but both Brayben and Rannells gain in stature – dramatically and vocally – through the second half. Unusually, that’s almost as long as the first.
Andrew Rannells and Katie Brayben. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
The show moves melodically, if not quite so memorably, through “Open Hands” and duetting as Brayben and Rannells start attracting a busy set – and followers in Lynne Page’s choreography which shimmers like a revival meeting on acid. There’s a centripetal feel to the way Page swirls these numbers round, centring the couple, with subversive asides. The whole production underscores just how high-camp evangelism is.
The first 40 minutes are dizzying, even stupefying. “We’ll save their souls through TV screens” Bakker justifies their ways to his peers. Their puppets dropped, the couple graft Christianity onto a set kitchen along with fuchsia-pink sofa chats first with porn-king Larry Flynt (Peter Caulfield) brandishing his wares, and Ronald Reagan (Steve John Shepherd), where Graham relishes some dialogue and – not for the last time – his delight in political vignettes triumphs. Bakker steers Reagan from recruiting Jesus as a Republican property investor, but only just.
It’s when Bakker loses his nerve and Tammy Faye goes solo that we move from style to substance. Brayben seizes in “Open Hands” the first of her big numbers, with gleaming top notes and terrific force. There’s great chemistry between the two in duets such as “If Only Love” where Rannells’ ardent lyric tenor shines. Whirling ensemble numbers like “He’s Inside Me” both guys religious enthusiasm while celebrating gospel intensity. Such lines as “God is coming in your ears” aren’t easily forgotten.
It’s when things go awry in the countervailing lyrics of “Empty Hands” that Brayben’s acting and vocal qualities rise through pathos and even absurdity, to something near the sublime. Her vocal acting is notable: Brayben edges words, doesn’t beautify when sharpening and blunting. Punching through the point of the song, she colours Shears’ lyrics here with a thinning-out and searing effect. Though great moments like “I feel like a torn dress you can’t mend”, after Bakker cringes with infidelity, are almost lost in the powerful orchestra.
Graham’s dialogue flickers through more audibly without the gorgeous distraction of singing, giving Brayben the chance to fire off joke-show ripostes. “Your mascara bill’s bigger than my salary” complains TV boss Ted Turner (the excellent Nicholas Rowe). “I’ll keep an eye on it” Brayben bats back. It’d be good to savour it, though with the production running at two hours and 50 minutes it’s no wonder Goold keeps things brisk.
In “Bring Me the Face of Tammy Bakker” – the lyrics are saturated with biblical in-jokes – Brayben cuts through plots and counter-plots to stand alone. She’s not the only one. In “Look How Far We’ve Fallen” each of her antagonists hoist themselves on their own petard, like a descanting confession. It’s this stripping down – orchestrally, even vocally – that raises the musical’s stature.
It’s fitting, though, that the two last numbers are the finest. “If You Came to See Me Cry” is the best song in the show, where Brayben is left vocally exposed and revels in the absolute pitch of her despair and triumph to sear into your memory. It ought to have a separate life. It’s here particularly there’s a final crossing from the world of The Book of Mormon to Evita – a musical referenced by one of the cast on a promotional video. The closing ensemble one too, “See You in Heaven” – full of wit and a kind of blessing on its own – ravels up the protagonists’ fates.
Jerry Falwell (Zubin Varla) impresses as a Iago-like conservative who needs to dissolve the Bakker’s dangerously liberal-leaning empire, just as much as he envies it. There’s more than a trace of Billy Budd’s great antagonist Claggart, from the eponymous Britten opera. Falwell’s is certainly the third great role and Varla brings a superbly gravelly voice to “The Right Kind of Faith” and “Run This Show”.
Bunny Christie’s striking set is uncluttered, with one platform rising and falling, and a white church-style gallery high up on either side. Primarily it’s a TV studio with an ominously closing-in back wall: a bank of colour-shifting TV screens doubling as windows (and once a TV-screen cross). Characters pop out of them as bickering religious heads, or more plangently betrayed viewers. The sappy synod between seraphic Pope John Paul II (Nicholas Rowe again on comedic form), snobby Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie (Steve John Shepherd relishing bad taste), and shrewder Latter-day Saints’ president in Salt Lake City (Fred Haig, all patient smarm) who sees it coming is delicious: the two Europeans are chagrined any second coming might choose the USA.
There’s recurring Muppet Show motifs. When those children’s puppets pop out too, it’s a whirligig of judgement on the Bakkers’ roots. Katrina Lindsay’s sumptuous costumes slowly time-travel through rock’n’roll with Suzanne Scotcher’s array of wigs: 1960s beehives through 1970s big hair to the triangular suits of the 1980s.
Peter Caulfield’s dancing Billy Graham is a striking supporting character. John Fletcher (Martin Sarreal) cringes as a guilt-ridden gay man with a seduction secret. Wronged Jessica Hahn (Gemma Sutton) is his opposite number, recruited by him; a study in shock. There’s good work too from Kelly Agbowu, principally as the Nurse who delivers the benediction, Colin Burnicle, especially as a gyrating Jesus, and Ashley Campbell as dignified Steve Pieters, the AIDS sufferer at the heart of the story. The punchy, memorable, and guitar-tangy band is led by Alex Beetschen.
Of one man’s heart Graham’s Tammy Faye quips: “Arrhythmia of the heart? That’s not what you died of, it’s your whole life.” After meeting her like this, one can believe she said it. “God bless Tammy Faye” the Almeida programme exclaims discreetly on its back cover, with a secular wink. There’s good reason to say amen to that.