here are some shows you never expect to see, and a musical about a gay-friendly televangelist and America’s Christian right in the Seventies and Eighties by Elton John
, James Graham
and Jake ‘Scissor Sisters’ Shears is one of them. But here it is and praise the lord, it’s a religious riot.
Katie Brayben plays the titular TV preacher with eyes full of sympathetic tears, lungs of steel, and a wardrobe and wigs from the ninth circle of hell. Elton’s music wittily blends gospel and revivalist soul with the pop of Tammy Faye’s heyday and some almost vaudevillian comic songs. The madcap, cartoonish energy of Rupert Goold’s production sugars the serious point that religious corruption and political influence is very much still alive in America, and elsewhere.
Amid the evangelical media boom of the Seventies, small-town North Carolina Methodist Jim Bakker (Andrew Rannells, redeploying the cheesy anxiety he brought to The Book of Mormon) and his wife were miraculously gifted a religious satellite channel by Ted Turner. Tammy Faye, initially the sidekick, proved the star, blending the God-bothering with lifestyle content, and exuding telegenic relatability. If she asked for money, people sent it. Again and again. Soon the Bakkers built personal fortunes and a theme park on “credit… which is another word for faith”.
The couple’s greed and profligacy – and the sexual misconduct of Bakker and his fellow preachers – is contrasted with Tammy Faye’s genuine empathy, particularly when she embraces a young pastor with AIDS live on air. In the opening scene, set late in her life, she may mistake her proctologist for God, but the show doesn’t doubt her faith. Graham takes a less nuanced approach to Jerry Falwell (Zubin Varla), depicted as a Machiavelli intent on reuniting church and state under Ronald Reagan and installing an anti-gay, anti-abortion (and low-tax) agenda.
Turning this story into a musical heightens its absurdity. There is a knowing snicker to the anthem He’s Inside Me: other songs like He Promised Me and Look How Far We’ve Fallen are hilariously scathing. Brayben clucks around like a bright-plumaged hen until required to unleash her devastating, powerhouse voice, most notably on the penultimate number If You Came to See Me Cry. Talking heads, including Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Runcie, pop out of the bank of TV screens that dominates Bunny Christie’s set.
You can sometimes hear Shears reaching for rhymes in his lyrics, it’s true. And none of the characters is truly three-dimensional. But that’s not the point. This is a carnivalesque takedown of something rotten. Graham, always even-handed, draws a distinction between true believers and hypocrites. In a late scene where Tammy gets to meet Falwell and Billy Graham in Purgatory – yes, really – she points out that the word ‘love’ is used in the Bible 489 times and ‘hate’’ just 89. I love this show.
Almeida Theatre, to Dec 3; Almeida.co.uk
“The rise, fall and resurrection of American tele-evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker isn’t the most obvious subject for a new British musical – even if it is one that arrives with blazing clouds of expectation with music by Elton John, lyrics by Jake Shears (of the Scissor Sisters) and a book by playwright James Graham. Yet Tammy Faye is clever, catchy and great fun.
“Its success, grounded in a terrific central performance by Katie Brayben, lies in the way Graham shapes a fairly straight-forward retelling of Tammy Faye’s life into something richer by using it to chart the rise of the evangelical right in American politics. As rival evangelist Jerry Falwell grasps the potential of using the rise of Ronald Reagan to bring back conservative values, Tammy Faye, with her warm-hearted belief in the love of God rather than his wrath, becomes an unlikely heroine of liberal tolerance and equality.”
“Bunny Christie’s set, meanwhile, is simple but spectacular – a TV studio with a back wall of miniature sets that double up as windows through which characters deliver comic sketches. In a nod to the Bakkers’ start in children’s puppetry, they bear some resemblance to The Muppet Show: one recurring conversation between Pope John Paul II (Nicholas Rowe), archbishop Robert Runcie (Steve John Shepherd) and the Latter Day Saints’ president in Salt Lake City (Fred Haig) appears like a comic twist on Statler and Waldorf.
“Katrina Lindsay’s gorgeous costumes change with the times, from Hairspray-inspired wigs of the 60s to the boxy suits and bat-wings of the 80s. Lynne Page’s choreography is riotous, while visual humour comes in fabulously camp asides.”
“There are some shows you never expect to see, and a musical about a gay-friendly televangelist and America’s Christian right in the Seventies and Eighties by Elton John, James Graham and Jake ‘Scissor Sisters’ Shears is one of them. But here it is and praise the lord, it’s a religious riot.
“Katie Brayben plays the titular TV preacher with eyes full of sympathetic tears, lungs of steel, and a wardrobe and wigs from the ninth circle of hell. Elton’s music wittily blends gospel and revivalist soul with the pop of Tammy Faye’s heyday and some almost vaudevillian comic songs. The madcap, cartoonish energy of Rupert Goold’s production sugars the serious point that religious corruption and political influence is very much still alive in America, and elsewhere.”
“The cast deliver it all with the delirious vim that the subject matter deserves. As Tammy Faye, [Katie] Brayben looks like a nailed-on Olivier winner, giving a hugely likable performance of gentle charm and belting 11 o’clock numbers like it’s easy. As Jim, [Andrew] Rannells fixes on a Ken doll-like smile to show us a man who always feels nervy, anxiously twisting his wedding ring. And Zubin Varla, who gave one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in Fun Home at the Young Vic, is a standout as their bitter rival Jerry Falwell, with a Javert-esque number of his own.
“Ultimately, it’s hard to resist such a winning, hard-working cast. In one of the show’s best lines, Jim tells Tammy why she was so good on TV. “You opened your heart and people wanted to come in! It was like the opposite of church.” That’s basically Tammy Faye.”
Fiona Mountford, The i
“Rupert Goold directs with his customary brio, the ensemble is top-notch as they flit between supporting characters and designer Bunny Christie’s bank of television screens allows for unexpected figures to pop up; a glorious three-way conversation between the otherworldly Pope, the frazzled Archbishop of Canterbury and the leader of the Mormon church frets over the huge “congregations” of the televangelists.
“The music is strong and catchy; “He’s Inside Me” (sample lyric “He’s inside women and he’s inside men”) is a cheekily suggestive encomium to the Lord and “He Promised Me” is delivered by Brayben as an impassioned foot-stomper of betrayal. The closing number, “See You in Heaven”, is the evening’s stand-out. Heaven might have to wait, but there is little doubt that we’ll be seeing this show in venues beyond the Almeida.”
Andrzej Lukowski, Time Out
“[James] Graham’s book is unabashedly celebratory of Faye as a compassionate alternative to the powerful-hungry male televangelists, who we see go on to forge a cynical pact with Steve John Shepherd’s ambitious Ronald Reagan. But it’s also the first big biographical musical I’ve seen since Hamilton where the writer was clearly allowed a free hand, and not simply forced into writing a hagiography by the subject’s estate. Graham’s Faye is a deeply flawed woman who – spoiler alert – ends up in Purgatory rather than heading straight to the Good Place. But as much as her failings are acknowledged, she’s clutched fiercely to the show’s chest for her instinctive championing of LGBTQ folk: the scene that details her interview with a gay pastor with AIDS is hugely moving. Sure, her head was turned by money. But she was an infinitely better Christian and human than the awful Falwell. I’m not sure how accurate every detail is (there’s surely a fair amount of simplification involved). But Graham’s eye for period quirk is unmatched, and as ever with him we do actually learn something.
“[Elton] John and [Jake] Shears are not just along for the ride. In the goofier first half their songs have to set the tone: ‘If Only Love’ is a catchy, plaintive ballad that underscores the fact the Bakkers start out with a genuine love for each other, while ‘PTL TV Theme’ and ‘He’s Inside Me’ are daft glam-era Elton John pastiches that absolutely hit the spot in terms of underscoring the essential silliness of the high televangelist era. (There’s also a glorious cheeky interpolation of ‘Crocodile Rock’ that reminds us of the fact that for all the musicals Elton John has written, we’re surely still crying out for an Elton John musical.)”