Fresh off the atrocious “Devil Wears Prada” musical in Chicago, Elton John is back on the boards a mere two months later with the Televangelist Wears Mascara in London.
That’s right. The singer-songwriter’s latest musical is “Tammy Faye,” a biopic of the controversial religious TV personality Tammy Faye Messner, which premiered Wednesday night at the Almeida Theatre.
Two hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission. At the Almeida Theatre, Almeida St in London. Through Dec. 3.
John’s new show doesn’t deserve the fire and brimstone that “Prada” got, but you won’t walk out praising Jesus either.
Directed by Rupert Goold, the master of slick British exports such as “Ink,” “King Charles III” and the “American Psycho” musical, the shallow “Tammy Faye” never comes to understand its endlessly fascinating main character. Nor does it make much of an attempt. It is an unsatisfying surface-level examination of an icon.
The show is an Ikea-style, factory-like, goofy “It’s a Small World After All” of American and church-goer stereotypes (they love that here) delivered by purposefully robotic actors, which is palatable to a point. But eventually we crave to grasp why Tammy Faye mattered, feel why she was so unique and realize why we are watching a nearly three-hour musical about her scored by the singer-songwriter of “Tiny Dancer.”
That much-needed hallelujah moment, I’m afraid, never arrives.
Tammy is played by Katie Brayben, who gives a sturdy but uninspired performance. The actress is, of course, hobbled by our memories of the recent film “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” in which Jessica Chastain gave a mesmerizing, heartfelt and ultimately Oscar-winning turn that went far deeper than a caked-on impression. Brayben can’t touch it.
The fatuous and un-insightful book by writer James Graham, whose “Ink” was so taut and delectable when it played Broadway in 2019, does her no favors.
Get this — during our first encounter with Tammy Faye, she comically bends over for a proctologist who tells her she has cancer. She finds out he’s gay, and goes on to make some predictable lowbrow sex jokes. That, I kid you not, is the beginning of this musical.
Co-starring as her sleazy husband Jim Bakker is Broadway’s Andrew Rannells, who exudes showbiz charisma that the production otherwise lacks. We meet the chirpy pair as they try to find a preaching perch next to Billy Graham (Peter Caulfield) and Jerry Falwell (Zubin Varla). At first, the couple is smitten.
Can we feel the love tonight? Sorry, Elton, not tonight. Their chemistry is non-existent.
The duo arrives on the competitive scene “right smack-dab in the middle of the TV age,” as Billy sings. Their youth and creativity is perfectly suited to the small screen.
Tammy Faye and Jim form PTL, a k a the “Praise The Lord” network, and they become a mammoth success. Graham’s book doesn’t adequately express just how big they were — watched by millions, the subject of a skit on “Saturday Night Live,” known by pretty much everybody in the US. The British audience, meanwhile, has no idea how far-reaching the scope of their influence was at its peak.
John and Graham’s musical decides that Tammy’s life goes downhill once Jim has sex with Jessica Hahn, who claims he raped her, and allegedly sleeps with men. There is much more to it than that, such as massive fraud and Tammy’s pill addiction, which are barely mentioned. Tammy had her own extra-marital dalliance, too. She also had a burgeoning music career that produced better tunes than anything we hear at the Almeida.
All of this is enacted on Bunny Christie’s stark-white set of TV screens that looks like the soundstage from “Laugh In.” The same designer of “Company” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time” lends that technological, in-Vogue-in-the-UK aesthetic to a show that’s actually harmed by it.
John pumps up traditionalist Falwell into a silly rock ’n’ roll villain, who pushes Ronald Reagan to embrace evangelical Christianity like Ursula urged Ariel to hand over her voice.
“I’ve been called by my creator to make America greater,” Falwell sings. Seriously.
Another dumb song, “He’s Inside Me,” decides, without much wit, that Christian television is inherently homoerotic.
Goold — or perhaps John — nods to John’s pop oeuvre via a rendition of “Crocodile Rock” during Act 2 for no apparent reason, reminding us that musicals are not John’s strongest suit.
Brayben has her moments. She succeeds in loud-though-bland ballads such as “Empty Hands” and her big number “If You Came To See My Cry.” We believe in her sorrow thanks to the actress, but there isn’t any depth or specificity to the material. They come out of nowhere. The milquetoast lyrics, by Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters, don’t have a kiki.
John’s score is workman-like and hesitantly waves hello to rock, Christian music, honky-tonk and country. If only it were more memorable. There’s no “Electricity,” “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” or even “My Strongest Suit” from “AIDA” here.
As far as the future of John’s musical theatre career goes, he might want to finally give us a break and let the sun go down on him.
This story originally appeared on NY Post