This is by no means the first time that the life of Tammy Faye Bakker has been portrayed on stage; and previous musical incarnations include The Gospel According to Tammy Faye and Big Tent. The advantage that Tammy Faye, now playing at the Almeida Theatre, should have is the heavenly creative team behind the production.
If you’re not familiar with the story of Tammy Faye Bakker and her husband Jim, James Graham’s script lays the groundwork well. Slowly building up their meteoric rise to stardom from their small Christian puppet show to a satellite TV network that defined televangelism in the seventies and eighties.
The ‘electric church’ was already in existence, but it was the Bakker’s (and in particular Tammy Faye’s) unique style that took things to a whole new level. This angered fellow televangelists, who in this version at least, take a less than Christian approach to usurping these new Messiah’s.
The Bakker’s didn’t really do themselves any favours either, spending millions of dollars donated by their congregation on a lavish lifestyle. Jim Bakker was eventually indicted for fraud, having already been unfaithful to Tammy Faye.
The story here, speeds up their success, and understandably focusses fairly accurately on their demise. It’s striking how this show, primarily based on religion, has been overly sexualised – some of the obvious innuendo verges on pure panto – yet shies away from the true nature of the allegations of sexual assault against Jim Bakker.
Artistic license aside, Graham’s script is tight and often hilarious, while developing the characters beautifully. It becomes very easy to sympathise with Tammy Faye because of the way the story has carefully been constructed.
Expectations are high in the auditorium for the score, this is a musical afte rall, and with music by Elton John and lyrics by Jake Shears, we’re all expecting something fabulous. But it never really comes, the songs are all great to listen to, and drive the narrative forward but for much of the first act feel quite flat.
Tammy Faye’s big solo numbers ‘Right Kind of Faith’ and the 11 o’clock number, ‘If You Came to See Me Cry’ are incredible, mostly due to Katie Brayben’s superb vocal ability, and there’s no denying that the finale number, ‘See You In Heaven’ is the kind of earworm you’ll be humming all the way home.
In fairness, Rupert Goold’s production does seem to make things difficult for itself; as Katie Brayben performs one of the best songs of the whole show, you can’t help being distracted by the choreography in the background, as the ensemble appear to recreate the video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The bible and zombies make for two very different genres, and the combination here is just one of many odd choices.
Tammy Faye is already sold out for it’s entire run; there’s that creative team for a start, but we also have Andrew Rannells giving an outstanding performance in the role of Jim, although a few more solo numbers for this character would have been much appreciated. With Rannells in such a prominent role, it’s hard not to spot a few similarities with The Book of Mormon; the theme park resurrection of Christ or the conference calls between The Pope and The Archbishop of Canterbury to name a couple.
Bunny Christie’s set design is very effective, made up of 1970’s inspired tiles that were used to create something akin to Hollywood Squares, light up in all the colours of the rainbow, and provide a backdrop to Finn Ross’s video projections.
Tammy Faye credits her success not to God, but “to the gays”, one scene depicts her infamous interview with a homosexual pastor with AIDS, but on the whole, and especially towards the end, it’s far more camp, much to the delight of the audience.
Just as the Bakker’s battled with other ministers, Tammy Faye finds itself battling between wanting to be a play and actually being a musical. Mostly the individual elements are great, but bring them all together and it starts to feel disjointed. However, it remains a perfectly enjoyable show that will undoubtedly go on to have a further life, and let’s hope that future includes Katie Brayben and Andrew Rannells who outshine everything else.