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Review: Tammy Faye (Almeida Theatre)

Review by Daz Gale


Praise the Lord – a brand new musical is receiving its world premiere at the Almeida Theatre in London. With a highly accomplished creative team involved and a huge Broadway star at the helm, there is much to be excited about with Tammy Faye but could this actually be a piece of musical theatre Heaven? Let’s pray.


The true story of Tammy Faye Bakker – an evangelist who came to prominence in America with her TV programme alongside husband Jim. As with last years movie The Eyes Of Tammy Faye (not affiliated with this adaptation) this musical charts her rise to fame and her fall from grace after Jim is imprisoned for fraud. With an initial non-linear approach, Tammy Faye starts near the end before looking back at her life and career.



An expert creative team have come together to give Tammy Faye the best possible chance of being a spiritual experience. With a book by James Graham, music by Elton John, lyrics by Jake Shears and direction from Rupert Goold, you would expect the very best based on their track records alone. Thankfully, Tammy Faye lives up to their previous credits… for the most part at least.


James Graham’s writing is every bit as fantastic as you would have come to expect from him. Full of humour, he perfectly balances the fun side of Tammys character with more serious and heartfelt aspects. There are times where you would like to find out more about Tammy with big parts of her life glossed over, but short of doubling the length of the musical, this does a great job of cramming in key aspects of her story and character.



The set design from Bunny Christie is simply glorious. A pristine white stage greets you ready to be completely transformed thanks to the varied but always stunning lighting design from Neil Austin, effortlessly adapting itself from a holy glow to a Pride rainbow in a millisecond. The main set piece ominously moves back and forth, revealing itself on multi-levels to allow various cast members to have phone calls and appear on television in a truly fantastic bit of staging. Use of video design from Finn Ross including live filming gives an extra layer to the production and effortlessly transports the audience to a different decade.


Rupert Goolds genius direction makes the best use of the relatively limited space and unique set design to ensure a production that is always visually stunning and a feast for the senses. Lynne Page’s choreography comes alive in some of the earlier group numbers but has the tendency to feel slightly jarring in later numbers with the choice to emulate movement in a gospel choice not quite coming off as seamlessly as might have been hoped, while the cast always look wonderfully camp in gorgeous costumes from Katrina Lindsay. A special mention must also go to Suzanne Scotcher for the extensive use of wigs and makeup needed to bring this production to life.



For the cast of Tammy Faye, a Broadway legend has made the leap over the pond to step into the oversized squeaky shoes of Jim Bakker. Andrew Rannells has made a name for himself with roles in shows such as Hamilton, Falsettos and The Book Of Mormon not to mention his turn in the movie adaptation of The Prom. Now, he is blessing British audiences with his London debut and God, it was worth the wait. You can very clearly see why he is such a bonafide star, channelling all the contrasting aspects of Jims character in a complex yet consistently charming performance. Charismatic and bursting with talent, Andrew is jaw dropping to witness. Rather admirably though, he knows he isn’t the main feature of this show and is more than happy to step aside as there is one star in this show that well and truly eclipses all others. Step forward, Katie Brayben.


Delivering what is quite possibly THE performance of the year, Katie is phenomenal in her portrayal of Tammy Faye Bakker. I fell in love with Katies talent and in particular her remarkable voice when she appeared as Carole King in Beautiful. With Tammy Faye, I fell in love with her all over again. Impeccable comic timing, a nuanced and emotive portrayal, oodles of charisma and a singing voice that is a gift from God, Katie doesn’t put a foot wrong in this flawless portrayal which should see her receive countless praise and awards nominations. Absolutely sensational.



It might be hard to match up to two powerhouse lead performances but the rest of the cast more than pull their weight. Standouts include the remarkable Amy Booth-Steel as Jan, Gemma Sutton giving a captivating portrayal of Jessica Hahn and Jerry Falwell perfectly balancing the duplicitous Jerry Falwell so it doesn’t descend into panto villain territory. The ensemble cast come together on the larger group numbers delighting with their own vocals and movement in what is a consistently impressive cast.


What really brings Tammy Faye to life is the music. With two musical legends at the helm in the form of Elton John and Jake Shears, you already know the quality is going to be God-like (with their previous musical collaboration the classic Scissor Sisters number ‘I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’ setting the bar high) and it certainly lives up to its premise in that respect. The unashamed cheese of ‘If Only Love’, the camp numbers ‘Prime Time’ and ‘See You In Heaven’ will have your eyes bulging with glee, while the pure filth of ‘He’s Inside Me’ is as hilarious as it gets, with more double entendres than you can shake a stick at. ‘Bring Me The Face Of Tammy Bakker’ is a standout while even the frantic and crazy staging of ‘God’s House/Heritage USA’ fails to distract from the glory of the music being performed.



Where the music really shines though is in its simpler ballads, with Katie Brayben getting several opportunities to showcase her divine talents. Act one closer ‘Empty Hands’ and the showstopping 11 o clock number ‘If You Came To See Me Cry’ provided undoubted showstopping moments with Katies voice constantly thrilling and surprising with just how good she really is. Overall, one of the best new musicals song wise I have heard in a long time – this has the makings to sit alongside existing classics to be a favourite in the years to come.


The initial theme of gender roles, with Tammy not being taken seriously as anything over than Jims wife provide some interesting thought, but are ultimately glossed over rather than returned to which feels like a missed opportunity. Similarly, Tammy’s progressive attitude towards the LGBTQ+ community considering the time could have been explored a bit more deeply, particularly in the later years of her life. The one exception to this is a faithfully recreated moment which sees Tammy meet AIDS patient Steve Pieters. While it is beautifully adapted and carries an emotional punch, one or two other moments with as much heart of this could have lifted this already fantastic musical to the next level.



Ultimately, Tammy Faye is a simply glorious musical. Fantastic staging and incredible music already ensures this is an exciting production, but it’s the sensational performances from Katie Brayben and Andrew Rannells that really turns it into something phenomenal. Like the real people it is based on, the show is not without its flaws, with act 2 slightly weaker than the first and perhaps an over-reliance on the same tricks of the set design which can lose impact after the 10th occurrence.. Overall, however, what the team have created here is something Godly.


I’m sure this short run at the Almeida won’t be the last we see of Tammy Faye. Keep your eyes open as I could see a West End and a Broadway run in its future life. I have every bit of faith it could go on to huge things. Tammy Faye deserves all the praise it gets for the joy and heart it conveys on the stage, ultimately bringing a bit of Church to the theatre. Hallelujah – it’s a hit!


★★★★


Tammy Faye is at the Almeida Theatre until December 3rd. Tickets from https://almeida.co.uk/


Photos by Marc Brenner

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