Elton John moves in mysterious but not totally inexplicable ways. The star was not present at the opening night of his new musical, about troubled but darling American televangelist Tammy Faye, remembered fondly when she died in 2007 as a pillar of the gay community during the crisis of AIDS, but relatively unknown here.
The 325-seat Almeida might seem like a small pulpit from which to launch a work by one of the world’s greatest artists and a titan of musical theatre: The Lion King is the highest-grossing Broadway musical and Billy Elliot ranks among the best British musicals. . The talent working alongside John also seems heavenly: Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters provided the lyrics, prolific playwright James Graham composed the book, and Almeida’s ever esteemed boss Rupert Goold directs.
Caution is advised with any new musical, however – and John’s latest attempt at Chicago, providing the score for The Devil Wears Prada, was excoriated this summer. As it stands, Tammy Faye isn’t one hell of a show in a bad way, but it’s surprisingly purgatory at times, struggling to find strong dramatic momentum, the bland leading the bland when it comes to too many songs.
The recent film, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, explored the flaws of Faye and her husband, Jim Bakker, in a more interesting way, as it traced their progression from darlings to Christian puppeteers to something like a proto US Richard and Judy – TV both their salvation (‘Praise the Lord’ (PLT) a satellite network that has reached and raked millions) and a window into their eventual fall from grace.
This skilfully staged play cuts, with argumentative force but not enough jagged wit or charged emotion, in pursuit of how the chain emerged and became the envy of more conservative ministers, who turned rushed after the couple’s finances collapsed and the law got involved – their nemesis being Jerry Fulwell, who pulled off a takeover.
This allows for the thesis that the duo were accidental scouts for today’s “moral majority”, but it engenders a strange characterization void. The first half lacks soulful belting, redemption was achieved only in a ballad titled Empty Hands, and then a handful of wonderfully vigorous gospel and spiritual numbers in the middle of the second half. In the lead, Katie Brayben is solar-powered, touchingly fragile and, blessed with a voice, uplifting in her survivor’s anthem at the end, but wasn’t the real Tammy more grumpy? what is shown to us? And wasn’t Bakker (Andrew Rannells) more charismatic and simply fascinating than that? More inspiration, divine or otherwise, is needed – I would say.
Until December 3. Tickets: 020 7359 4404; almeida.co.uk