The Tammy Faye musical – did the eyes have it?
Did the critics raise their hands to praise and rejoice in Elton John, Jake Shears and James Graham's new show?
Sarah Crompton, WhatsOnStage
"The rise, fall and resurrection of American tele-evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker isn't the most obvious subject for a new British musical – even if it is one that arrives with blazing clouds of expectation with music by Elton John, lyrics by Jake Shears (of the Scissor Sisters) and a book by playwright James Graham. Yet Tammy Faye is clever, catchy and great fun.
"Its success, grounded in a terrific central performance by Katie Brayben, lies in the way Graham shapes a fairly straight-forward retelling of Tammy Faye's life into something richer by using it to chart the rise of the evangelical right in American politics. As rival evangelist Jerry Falwell grasps the potential of using the rise of Ronald Reagan to bring back conservative values, Tammy Faye, with her warm-hearted belief in the love of God rather than his wrath, becomes an unlikely heroine of liberal tolerance and equality."
Arifa Akbar, The Guardian
"Bunny Christie's set, meanwhile, is simple but spectacular – a TV studio with a back wall of miniature sets that double up as windows through which characters deliver comic sketches. In a nod to the Bakkers' start in children's puppetry, they bear some resemblance to The Muppet Show: one recurring conversation between Pope John Paul II (Nicholas Rowe), archbishop Robert Runcie (Steve John Shepherd) and the Latter Day Saints' president in Salt Lake City (Fred Haig) appears like a comic twist on Statler and Waldorf.
"Katrina Lindsay's gorgeous costumes change with the times, from Hairspray-inspired wigs of the 60s to the boxy suits and bat-wings of the 80s. Lynne Page's choreography is riotous, while visual humour comes in fabulously camp asides."
Nick Curtis, Evening Standard
"There are some shows you never expect to see, and a musical about a gay-friendly televangelist and America's Christian right in the Seventies and Eighties by Elton John, James Graham and Jake ‘Scissor Sisters' Shears is one of them. But here it is and praise the lord, it's a religious riot.
"Katie Brayben plays the titular TV preacher with eyes full of sympathetic tears, lungs of steel, and a wardrobe and wigs from the ninth circle of hell. Elton's music wittily blends gospel and revivalist soul with the pop of Tammy Faye's heyday and some almost vaudevillian comic songs. The madcap, cartoonish energy of Rupert Goold's production sugars the serious point that religious corruption and political influence is very much still alive in America, and elsewhere."
Jessie Thompson, The Independent
"The cast deliver it all with the delirious vim that the subject matter deserves. As Tammy Faye, [Katie] Brayben looks like a nailed-on Olivier winner, giving a hugely likable performance of gentle charm and belting 11 o'clock numbers like it's easy. As Jim, [Andrew] Rannells fixes on a Ken doll-like smile to show us a man who always feels nervy, anxiously twisting his wedding ring. And Zubin Varla, who gave one of the best performances I've ever seen in Fun Home at the Young Vic, is a standout as their bitter rival Jerry Falwell, with a Javert-esque number of his own.
"Ultimately, it's hard to resist such a winning, hard-working cast. In one of the show's best lines, Jim tells Tammy why she was so good on TV. "You opened your heart and people wanted to come in! It was like the opposite of church." That's basically Tammy Faye."
Fiona Mountford, The i
"Rupert Goold directs with his customary brio, the ensemble is top-notch as they flit between supporting characters and designer Bunny Christie's bank of television screens allows for unexpected figures to pop up; a glorious three-way conversation between the otherworldly Pope, the frazzled Archbishop of Canterbury and the leader of the Mormon church frets over the huge "congregations" of the televangelists.
"The music is strong and catchy; "He's Inside Me" (sample lyric "He's inside women and he's inside men") is a cheekily suggestive encomium to the Lord and "He Promised Me" is delivered by Brayben as an impassioned foot-stomper of betrayal. The closing number, "See You in Heaven", is the evening's stand-out. Heaven might have to wait, but there is little doubt that we'll be seeing this show in venues beyond the Almeida."
Andrzej Lukowski, Time Out
"[James] Graham's book is unabashedly celebratory of Faye as a compassionate alternative to the powerful-hungry male televangelists, who we see go on to forge a cynical pact with Steve John Shepherd's ambitious Ronald Reagan. But it's also the first big biographical musical I've seen since Hamilton where the writer was clearly allowed a free hand, and not simply forced into writing a hagiography by the subject's estate. Graham's Faye is a deeply flawed woman who – spoiler alert – ends up in Purgatory rather than heading straight to the Good Place. But as much as her failings are acknowledged, she's clutched fiercely to the show's chest for her instinctive championing of LGBTQ folk: the scene that details her interview with a gay pastor with AIDS is hugely moving. Sure, her head was turned by money. But she was an infinitely better Christian and human than the awful Falwell. I'm not sure how accurate every detail is (there's surely a fair amount of simplification involved). But Graham's eye for period quirk is unmatched, and as ever with him we do actually learn something.
"[Elton] John and [Jake] Shears are not just along for the ride. In the goofier first half their songs have to set the tone: ‘If Only Love' is a catchy, plaintive ballad that underscores the fact the Bakkers start out with a genuine love for each other, while ‘PTL TV Theme' and ‘He's Inside Me' are daft glam-era Elton John pastiches that absolutely hit the spot in terms of underscoring the essential silliness of the high televangelist era. (There's also a glorious cheeky interpolation of ‘Crocodile Rock' that reminds us of the fact that for all the musicals Elton John has written, we're surely still crying out for an Elton John musical.)"
Sarah Hemming, Financial Times
"Graham, our leading political playwright, spies in this gaudy saga the roots of contemporary culture wars, with conservatives and fundamentalists raging over "woke" values and infiltrating the body politic to chilling effect."
"All this comes packaged in a larger-than-life narrative style, which fills this one-time church with a blend of zinging dialogue, religious frenzy and Lynne Page's wildly camp dance routines. John and Spears bowl events forwards with a combination of daft pastiche rock, glam-rock and rousingly genuine ballads. Best of these is "Empty Hands" before the interval, a soul-baring torch song which Brayben delivers with rafter-raising passion. And she is superb, bringing both warmth and beady intelligence to Tammy Faye, nicely contrasted by Rannells' Bakker, uncomfortable in his own skin. Slithering around them is Zubin Varla as a reptilian Jerry Falwell."
Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph
"As things stand, Tammy Faye isn't a hell of a show in the wrong sense, but it's surprisingly purgatorial at points, struggling to find a strong dramatic pulse, the bland leading the bland so 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 sweethearts to Christian puppeteers to something like an American proto-Richard and Judy – TV being both their salvation (Praise the Lord was a satellite network that reached, and raked, in millions) and a window onto their eventual fall from grace."
Sam Marlowe, The Stage
"This new musical, with book by playwright James Graham and songs by Elton John and Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters, is a surface-skimming romp – Evita meets Jerry Springer: The Opera, by way of RuPaul's Drag Race. It prods rather gingerly at the surging appeal of the populist politics of the Christian right – the same mindset that demonised AIDS and HIV patients as victims of a "gay plague" and which engineered the horrifying overturning of Roe vs Wade this year – and which confronts us, too, with our enduring fascination with such tales of garish glory; crash and burn.
"But the show, directed by Rupert Goold with a vim and stylishness that can't quite disguise its shortage of substance, lacks Graham's usual incisive wit and grip. Nor does it quite lean hard enough into the high-camp soap-opera aspect that might have provided more biting zing. John's rather bland score – his latest in a theatrical career that includes the recent Broadway flop The Devil Wears Prada, as well as hits Billy Elliot and The Lion King – draws on the gospel, rock'n'roll and boogie-woogie, but rarely comes close to divine."
Clive Davis, The Times
"She was a larger-than-life figure, yet Tammy Faye Bakker emerges as a cipher with lots of lipstick in this tepid new musical from Elton John. In the 1980s the singing tele-evangelist and her preacher husband, Jim, achieved notoriety in the US when their lucrative Praise The Lord empire imploded amid financial and sexual scandals.
"The prospect of hearing a new set of songs by one of our greatest musicians means that tickets are in short supply. Yet for all Katie Brayben's efforts in the title role, this show — a decade in the making and fitted with serviceable lyrics by the Scissor Sisters star Jake Shears — trundles from one set-piece to another."