THE musical Tammy Faye is remarkably sympathetic to the Christian faith of the American evangelist whose television channel, Praise the Lord, rose and fell equally spectacularly in the 1980s. It is very much less sympathetic to her husband, Jim Bakker, whose affairs with women and men and multiple fraud offences are detailed. And it is scathing of Jerry Falwell and other televangelists, scheming and hypocritical, whose political machinations are shown creating the climate that brought Ronald Reagan and then Donald Trump to power.
To be in the audience for Tammy Faye, you would have needed to be quick-thinking and poised at a computer during the hour that it took for all tickets to sell out. The frenziedly awaited show is by Elton John (who has an impressive track record with musicals), James Graham (the UK’s foremost political dramatist), and Jake Shears (of the Scissor Sisters).
At its deeply affecting heart is a compassionate interview broadcast in 1985 between Tammy Faye and Steve Pieters, a church pastor who was (and still is) living with AIDS. In the openly homophobic Church of that decade, it outraged Christian leaders. But, in its message of the unconditional welcome of Jesus, it made her an iconic figure among LGBT people.
The musical is not perfect, but it is thrilling, largely owing to an astounding performance by Katie Brayben in the title role. Her voice thunders like an archangel as she leads the fleet-footed cast, impeccably drilled by the choreographer, Lynne Page, under Rupert Goold’s stylish and energetic direction. Brayben conveys both the steel and vulnerability of a woman trying to hold her integrity in a world in which powerful men belittle and oppose her.
As Jim Bakker, Andrew Rannells is her equal, knowing that he is nothing without his wife, and smug but malleable. Elton John’s music soars and rocks, especially in the stand-out torch song “If you came to see me cry”. James Graham’s book skewers religious duplicity with wit. At heaven’s gate, Tammy meets Falwell (a superbly devious Zubin Varla) and discovers the cause of his death. “Heart failure? Oh, Jerry, that’s not how you died; that’s how you lived.”
Bunny Christie’s set is an ever-changing wall of television screens, which flip up to become the setting of imagined conversations, including a hilarious one between Robert Runcie and Pope John Paul II.
But Faye is forgiven too easily for the life-destroying prosperity gospel that made her, but could not save her. Her character is surface-deep, and the question whether her Christian beliefs are, like her famous tears, sincere or convenient is unexplored.
Just before the end, she faces the audience and delivers a sermon about the place of forgiveness and love in the Bible which would be acceptable from any Anglican pulpit in the country. The company breaks into a gospel-driven chorus of “I’ll see you in heaven.” It is exultant and utterly uplifting. I believe! I believe!
Tammy Faye continues at the Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, London N1, until 3 December. Box office: phone 020 7359 4404. www.almeida.co.uk