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Review: A Holy Hoot – Tammy Faye Should Be Bringing a Religious Rumble to Broadway

Elton John, Jake Shears and James Graham's new musical is a blast of biblical proportions.

Andrew Rannells and Katie Brayben
(© Marc Brenner)

Hey guys, there's a new musical where Andrew Rannells sings about God! No... not The Book of Mormon – this one is more recent. No... not the movie version of The Prom – this one is onstage in London. London, I hear you ask? So what's the point in making a song and dance if it's all the way over there?

Well, it turns out the team behind Tammy Faye is pretty stellar – Elton John, Jake Shears, James Graham, and Rupert Goold, as well as choreographer Lynn Page and designer Bunnie Christie. The group, all of whom naturally have Broadway in their veins, have come together to tackle the eponymous '80s televangelist icon, whose annual mascara budget probably exceeded that of most NYC not-for-profits.

What's more, it's a musical that (pun intended) John seems to have more faith in – after confessing his new version of The Devil Wears Prada is not fit for further consumption just yet. You can see why. Dipping his toe into the wellspring of gospel and '80s bombast, he churns out a healthy dose of catchy, cockle-warming earworms, peppered across a three-hour run-time, aided immeasurably by assured lyrics from long-time collaborator Jake Shears (he of Scissor Sisters and being-simultaneously-filthy-and-gorgeous fame).

Tammy Faye's title is deceptively understated for a musical full of flamboyance, primary-colored costumes and bigger wigs than backstage at a Drag Race convention. It's also, notably, not interested in a cynical take down of institutionalized religion: Do not expect a lampoon here. As is his norm, Graham uses the tale of Tammy Faye Bakker and her sexually confused husband, Jim, to dive headfirst into a plethora of uncomfortable paradoxes that typify televangelism – the direct link between preaching and profit, the manipulation of faith for fortune, and the Bakkers' ambitions ultimately leading to their undoing.

Interestingly, the pair can sometimes feel like cogs in a wider machine – Graham succeeds (as he did in making the founding of a newspaper into a thriller, or in transforming a provinicial British political palaver into a heart-warming rom-com) in layering on political takes (shady backroom deals with Reagan) and nods to trickle-down economics. The shadow of contemporary evangelical stances on issues like abortion and, of course, homosexuality, are clear as day.

The evening is helped by a mighty cast – there's a wealth of multi-roling going on from a talented ensemble juggling more zany '80s costumes than an episode of Cheers. Amongst the to-ing and fro-ing, central turns still stand out: Zubin Varla (a mighty Judas back in the day) makes meaty work of evangelical preacher and political schemer Jerry Falwell – a Salieri to the Bakker's Mozart. In a role that could so easily have become a self-interested caricature, Varla imbues the man with a narcisistic zealotry – ironclad in his belief that doing what benefits him will benefit conservative Christians everywhere. One first-act number, "Satellite of God," felt like a memorable mash-up between "Stars" and "Satellite of Love."

As mentioned, the show sees Rannells coming to the UK stage for the first time, providing fine comedic form as Jim, all bluster and thinly veiled innuendo as he watches his Heritage USA empire crumble. But, mon dieu, it's the central turn that is utterly spellbinding. Katie Brayben teases out all the contradictions in Tammy's personality – a sincerity seemingly at odds ith her showy ostentatiousness, a conviction in aiding minorities almost as devout as her commitment to killer lashes (this is probably a good time to acknowledge miracle-workering costume designer Katrina Lindsay and wig, hair, and make-up supervisor Suzanne Scotcher). What's more – Brayben's got the sort of voice you'd thank the stars for – rocking through John and Shears' music with effortless poise – especially in the storming 11-o'clock number "If You Came to See Me Cry."

It may need some polishing before it comes to Broadway, but my prediction is that Shears, John, Graham, and co may find more critical success on the other side of the pond compared to this initial Almeida run. In the UK, an increasingly secular country, Christianity can feel a bit like Pokémon Go – a lot of people were really, quite intensely into it a while ago, and now a smaller group of people commit to it in earnest. It's that unexpected earnestness that lingers long after the rousing closing number – for all her sins, Tammy Faye was a woman of faith – and sometimes that's all you need.


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