Elton John moves in mysterious but not entirely inexplicable ways. The star was not present at the opening night of her new musical, about the troubled but beloved American television predictor Tammy Faye, fondly remembered when she died in 2007 as a staunch advocate of the gay community during the AIDS crisis, but relatively unknown here.
The 325-seat Almeida might seem like a small pulpit from which to launch an opera by one of the world’s greatest recording artists and a titan of musical theater: The Lion King is the highest-grossing Broadway musical and Billy Elliot is one of the best British musicals. Even the talent working alongside John seems heaven-sent: Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters provided the lyrics, prolific playwright James Graham put the book together, and Rupert Goold, Almeida’s ever-respected boss, directs.
However, caution is advised with any new musical – and John’s most recent venture in Chicago, which provided the soundtrack for The Devil Wears Prada, was criticized in the summer. As things stand, Tammy Faye isn’t a hell of a show in the wrong sense, but she is surprisingly purgatory at times, struggling to find a strong dramatic impulse, the bland driving the bland as far as too many songs are concerned.
The recent film, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, delved more interestingly into the flaws of Faye and her husband, Jim Bakker, as it charted their progress from boyfriends to Christian puppeteers to something like a proto US Richard and Judy: the TV was their salvation (‘Praise to the Lord’ (PLT) a satellite network that reached and rounded up millions of people) and a window into their eventual fall from grace.
This cleverly staged piece cuts, with argumentative force but not enough jagged wit or emotion-laden, in pursuit of how the channel emerged and became the envy of more conservative ministers, who swooped in after the couple’s finances fell. are crumbled and the law has been involved: their nemesis is Jerry Fulwell, who made an acquisition.
This allows for the thesis that the two were accidental explorers of today’s “moral majority”, but generates a strange emptiness of characterization. The first half lacks soulful straps, redemption only achieved in a ballad called Empty Hands, and then a handful of wonderfully vigorous gospel and spirituals in the second half. In the lead role Katie Brayben is sunny, poignant and fragile and, voiced, uplifting in her survivor’s hymn at the end, but hasn’t her real life Tammy been more grumpy than what’s shown to us? And wasn’t Bakker (Andrew Rannells) more charismatic and simply charming than this? He needs more inspiration, divine or not, I would say.
Until December 3rd. Tickets: 020 7359 4404; almeida.it