‘Tammy Faye’ Review: New Elton John Score Doesn’t Yet Live Up to a Terrifically Entertaining Production

You can take anything and write a song about it. Whether it needs singing about is another question entirely. On the evidence of multitudes of recent musicals, it’s one too few creative teams bother to ask. The great news about “Tammy Faye” — the new musical now premiering at the Almeida Theatre in London — is that composer Elton John, lyricist Jake Shears and bookwriter James Graham buck that depressing trend. They spotted the fact that using singing to tell the story of a passionate entertainer who traded on grand-scale emotions makes total theatrical sense. Their show doesn’t yet completely deliver on that extremely promising premise, but it’s already riotously entertaining.

As shows up to and including “Jerry Springer – The Opera” proved, fearsome, ecstatic religious zeal is ideal material to sing about. And, as expected from a playwright who routinely meshes political perspective with theatrical zest, the book by James Graham (“Ink,” “This House,” “Quiz”) is intent, initially at least, upon being more than an act of worship (in every sense).

Immediately secure in their command of tone, Graham and director Rupert Goold open the action with white-clad Tammy Faye (knockout Katie Brayben) rising up from below on Bunny Christie’s versatile, all-white Hollywood-Squares-style set to meet not, as she imagines, her God, but her proctologist. The delicious timing of that comic moment – and the wordless heavenly chorus that steals in beneath the scene – ensures the first of many smart, unexpected laughs that, for the whole of the first half, cleverly straddle the division between laughing at and laughing with the subject.

And from the moment Peter Caulfield’s gleaming, beaming Billy Graham turns a grandstanding speech about the future of ministry and television into the insanely enjoyable song-’n’-dance number “Light of the World,” the shift into heightened emotions is wonderfully apparent. From there on in, we’re watching Tammy Faye recounting her biography in flashback, from Christian puppet-handler to America-wide power, from immense wealth to precipitous fall.

As Billy Graham’s number indicates, what’s new to a story already captured in documentary and again in Michael Showalter’s “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is the prominent role of rival evangelicals. Scheming religious figures keep popping up in TV screen boxes from Pat Robertson to the Pope via network boss Ted Turner and Steve John Shepherd’s wild-haired, increasingly exasperated Archbishop of Canterbury. Shepherd also plays Ronald Reagan, who proves a useful tool in a plot to control not just the show’s eye-waveringly massive audience, but American politics as a whole by putting “God in the White House.” That is the goal pursued by the show’s third lead, a devilish Zuban Varla who sighs, sneers and sings with utterly convincing passion as a devilish Jerry Falwell.

In Katrina Lindsay amusingly hideous 1970s suits, all-smiling Andrew Rannells is on winning form as Jim Bakker, charged up with unbreakable conviction. Without letting her know, he’s more than happy to take credit for Tammy Faye’s ideas. And, buoyed up by runaway success, he launches them into the stratosphere via the creation of his housing-development-cum-theme park in the triumphal production number “God’s House/Heritage USA.”

Aided by Neil Austin’s punctuating, pink-drenched lighting, Lynne Page’s alive-and-kicking choreography powers the show throughout, with this extended number in particular delivering on every level. It has dramatic punch and personality – particularly when Amy Booth-Steel highlights her every move with amusing, self-serving or malevolent intent. A genuine rarity, Page’s choreography even lands laughs entirely on its own snappy merits. 

That control of dramatic momentum builds to a well-earned, perfectly buttoned finish that’s even more impressive considering an underlying weakness in the show that gradually becomes apparent. Despite notably sharp lyrics from Jake Shears that have a welcome precision growing naturally from the book (another rarity), the music itself, though effective, is generic.

Elton John has had a matchless career writing highly individual songs for himself. Here, he shows that he can write everything from jaunty honky-tonk to Christian pop pastiche and give everything roof-raising rhythmic gusto. And with arranger Tom Deering and a crack seven-piece band he rocks the house, especially with Brayben (the West End’s Carole King in “Beautiful”) letting rip in audience-seizing fashion.

But as in “Billy Elliot” and most of “The Lion King,” John’s theater writing is worryingly generic, despite the wide variety of forms it mimics. It lacks anchoring, memorable individuality. He supplies what’s needed, but without distinctive qualities the songs only really work because the performances transcend the material.

That becomes ever clearer in the less successful second act charting Tammy Faye’s downfall. Her growing self-realization gives Brayben ample and welcome opportunity to amp everything up with self-lacerating power ballads. But the more you admire her, the more you realize her vocals are masking thinner and thinner material. Even the perky, ridiculously enjoyable finale “See You In Heaven” is indistinguishable from the nun’s joyous finale of “Sister Act.”

The show’s heart, and Goold’s splendid, every-second-counts production, is definitely and defiantly in the right place, not least in its depiction of her hugging a pastor with AIDS. But anyone conversant with the story will begin to wonder why so much – her drug dependency, her later difficulties, her role in the financial mess – have been skated over. Defining detail has been abandoned in the effort to paint her in too favorable a light. As the effect of the performances fade away, you realize that although it’s terrific entertainment, it’s not yet a terrific musical.

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