The London Theatre Review: Almeida Theatre’s Tammy Faye – A New Musical
It was a show I knew that I wasn’t going to miss when we booked the plane tickets for our typical, but long overdue theatre extravaganza trip in London, UK last November. Tammy Faye, the TV evangelist wife that seems as iconic as an Andy Warhol painting, is quite the galvanizing figure, with a movie and documentary backing up her celebrity status, but she is one that I never really cared that much about. I tend to steer away from religion in general, especially those that have wrapped themselves up in it for their own financial gain, but there is some sort of appeal, maybe the messiness or the outlandishness of her persona. Or the way she doesn’t quite fit into any particular box. Who knows. I did watch the incredibly fascinating film about her, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” starring the talented Jessica Chastain (soon to be on Broadway in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House) on a plane ride one afternoon, and it did pull me in. Especially some of the more fascinating contradictions. It seems the more you know, the more you want to know when it comes to her. And that idea is definitely true about Tammy Faye, the figure, and this flashy fabulously messy musical about her, called, no surprise here, Tammy Faye. Naturally.
The new musical, premiering at the Almeida Theatre in London this past fall, is a big, wild ride, finding humor and compassion inside the tale of this unforgettable entertainer who reveled in the spotlight but also found honor and engagement in a way few others managed. I can’t say that I love or support the woman behind the makeup, but there are many notable things she did inside that religious television show that truly did effect some sort of change, many of them I wasn’t quite aware of until the film and this musical. Composed by Sir Elton John (The Lion King; Billy Elliot the Musical), with lyrics by Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears (Tales of the City), and a book by James Graham (Ink; Best of Enemies), the view from the bridge is wide and expansive, and no wonder, her story is as big as her persona and as complicated as the mess in their financials. A drama of biblical proportions that spans decades and is filled to the rim with greed, complications, and destructive tendencies, by herself and her husband, Jim Baker, played with precision by Andrew Rannells (Broadway’s Boys in the Band). So much to pick your way through, and so little time (even though the show ran about 3hrs long).
Played to the emotional hilt by the extremely talented Katie Brayben (West End’s Beautiful: The Carole King Musical), Tammy is the true star of this epic white-clad makeup-running musical. She delivers forth this woman with an honest-to-God truth and vulnerability that is both wisely epic and smartly simple. And it’s clear from the first interaction with her proctologist (Fred Haig) that this unmasking is going to be deliberate and funny, while also finding the deliciously emotional undercurrent that brought her out into the world before us, and then basically threw her away once the shimmer on her lips and eyes had been smudged and washed away in the rain. She’s an innocent and a clever, determined woman, who believes in God and love in a way most of these evangelists dream of appearing. From puppet lady to trailblazer to being sidelined by the greed of all around her, including her, Brayben finds a core that we can get behind, and with those soaring vocals, we truly are hooked on her.
Directed with a swift commanding tone by Rupert Goold (Almeida/West End/Broadway’s King Charles III; Ink), Tammy Faye rises up strong on the versatile modern TV box squared set by Bunny Christie (West End/Broadway’s Company) with dynamic Hollywood lighting by Neil Austin (West End/Broadway’s Leopoldstadt), a solid sound design by Bobby Aitken (Old Vic’s The Divide), and a vibrant video design by Finn Ross (Almeida/Broadway’s American Psycho), with the song and dance elements gaining an insane but enjoyable level that shift and swirl around the subjects with aplomb. We are watching with a wide-opened sense of wonder, as Brayben’s Tammy guides us through, a bit haphazardly, from the young woman who so believes in Jim to the glossy tv-celebrity we all know and, well, sorta love, but in an odd angled kind of way.
As Billy Graham (Peter Caulfield) and all those other jealous men begin to circle about, and there is a whole heap of them, singing and dancing in their own odd kind of manner, the energy keeps shifting. But thanks to some delicate moves and engaging stylistic choices by choreographer Lynne Page (West End’s Funny Girl), the musical as a whole flies on glitter wings. It’s captivatingly fun, for the most part, but seems to be trying to take a bite out of every pie available to them. The rival evangelicals, all scheming religiously around the TV screen boxes, try their best to wrestle control, both of the audiences watching their TVs and the musical itself. Still, it’s really the fall from grace that we know is coming which keeps us tuned in, and some of those details get lost in the battle for center stage.
The Pope and network boss Ted Turner, both portrayed by Nicholas Rowe (Almeida’s Albion) make appearances, and politics become part of the problematic parcel as well, with Ronald Reagan, portrayed by Steve John Shepherd (Hampstead’s Describe the Night) chiming in with his own rhetoric, all in some wonderfully over-the-top 1970s consuming by Katrina Lindsay (West End/Broadway’s Harry Potter…). There is the scheming Jimmy Swaggart (Shepherd) and Pat Robertson (Rowe) on display, but it is the diabolical Jerry Falwell, played to the nines by Zubin Varla (Unicorn’s TheTwits) that sneers his way center stage who commands the most attention.
It’s a devilishly good creation, but one that ultimately highlights some of the show’s weaknesses. Is he the secondary lead or is it the underused ever-smiling Rannells who delivers with conviction? It feels like he should be there more, unpacking the demons that ultimately lead to the whole collapse, but he only shows up here and there, fulfilling his role, but he and his grand flaws get cast aside on a whim barely making a ripple, even with the dynamic “God’s House/Heritage USA” number solidifying his presence. The lyrics and the music are both sharp, powerful, and electric, but the book and the overall intent stumble by trying to cover far too much, while leaving important unpackings in those off-camera asides.
The epic range of Elton John’s music sings true, finding character and dynamic moments for each space. The songs are playful and expansive, yet sometimes lean on the generic. Musical supervisor and arranger Tom Deering (Regent’s Park Open Air’s Carousel) leads the seven-piece band strongly through the paces, elevating and supplying the landscape for these talented artists to rise up on with distinction. But it is Brayben, her power ballad voice, and her honest approach that solidifies the emotional heart and soul of this “See You In Heaven” splendor. She raises the roof, becoming the least cartoonish character in the show, which is a surprise, even as the material that is holding it together becomes worn out by all the stories it is trying to hold together.
Tammy’s drug dependency and Jim’s homosexual affair become almost casual asides, without much development or understanding. There is a beautifully touching moment when Tammy decides against everyone’s wishes to talk with and hug a gay pastor with AIDS on her television show, much to the chagrin of the two supposed friends of the Bakkers, Jan and Paul Crouch, hypnotically portrayed by the wonderful Amy Booth-Steel (RSC’s The Magician’s Elephant) and Richard Dempsey (West End’s Into the Woods). They are the secondary villains, Judases in bad clothes, wanting more power and the spotlight than they deserve. It’s there, in those moments of conflict when you realize that Tammy was some sort of rebellious trailblazer, in bad makeup, who believes in love, while also casually popping pills into her mouth like Tic-Tacs without much unpacking or understanding.
A cleaner line to the show’s heart and soul might be what’s needed, with alternate pathways and false side roads left for the movies or documentaries to unwind and delineate. The conversations around her marriage, her complicated drug use, the role she played in the financial mess, and her life after the fall from grace, get almost less airtime than Colonel Sanders (Dempsey) or Larry Flint (Caulfield). This decision leaves the convoluted Act Two swimming in too many currents to keep its head above water. Tammy Faye, the new musical needs a bit more time in the editing room before it is ready for Prime Time. I’m guessing that is the plan, to take some time now and fiddle with the seeds and the structure. Finding its core focus and main storyline. That framework is there, albeit unsorted, but with some clarity and determination, this fascinating musical study of this wildly wacky and wonderful woman could grow up big and strong, large enough to dazzle us all. Tammy Faye could be something worth tuning in to again, if it ever makes its way to the West End or Broadway in a stronger structure.