You are about to be saved. Well, kind of. This new musical about the technicolour eyeshadowed televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker may not deliver you to Jesus, but it is a whole lot of fun. You’ll have to pray to God for a ticket, because Elton John wrote the music, Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears wrote the lyrics and super-playwright James Graham did the book; the show is all but sold out. But the truth is, you probably won’t remember the songs – it’s the ebullience of Rupert Goold’s gloriously OTT production that will stay with you.
Naturally, the show is camp. And when I say camp, at one point it features a tapdancing Jesus in gold pants. It seems mischievously designed to upset Christians, which is exactly what the Bakkers apparently first did when they set out to communicate religious devotion in a new way. Tammy Faye, played by Katie Brayben in a series of flammable looking wigs, is presented here not just as a gay icon but a feminist hero. When she and husband Jim (Andrew Rannells) land their own show, it’s Jim who leads the way – because men, obv – except he’s a wooden, nervous presence on screen. One day, Tammy has to present alone – cue gasps, “is this allowed?” – but her homespun warmth is a ratings hit. First comes fame, then comes capitalist corruption, then comes trouble with the FBI – a story already familiar thanks to the recent film, The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
Despite its larger-than-life subject matter, the show is surprisingly conventional. Graham’s book has witty lines and some compelling themes: the tensions that emerge between couples, the ways in which the moral high ground can be weaponised, and how religion can be a fig leaf for corruption. But it’s very plotty, making it sometimes hard to follow which sinister man in a suit is which. I couldn’t say any of the songs are massively memorable, although by far the funniest is “He’s Inside Me” (about God being “inside men” and “inside women”). A bold reference to “Crocodile Rock” wins a laugh, but also serves to remind us that Sir Elton has delivered far bigger bangers. And the show is pretty cutesy: Tammy, even if slightly knowingly, is unequivocally painted as a shimmering beacon of tolerance and virtue. Love, she tells us, is mentioned in the bible 489 times, hate only 89.
But the cast deliver it all with the delirious vim that the subject matter deserves. As Tammy Faye, 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, Rannells fixes on a Ken doll-like smile to shows 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 number reminiscent of Javert from Les Misérables.
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.
Almeida Theatre, until 3 December
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