Review by Elyse Trevers
First a disclaimer, I am unabashedly a fan of Tina Turner. Ageless and bewigged, she’s an energetic, stunning and dynamic entertainer with legions of fans. Yet, like many, I didn’t know much about her personal life until the 1993 movie “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” The film starred Angela Bassett as Tina Turner and Laurence Fishburne as Ike Turner and documented his abuse of her.
Now Tina’s story is being told again in an exciting Broadway show, Tina – The Tina Turner Musical Written by Katori Hall, with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins, the show was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best New Musical. It is exhilarating and energizing.
Tina – The Tina Turner Musical received its world premiere in April 2018 at the Aldwych Theatre in London, where it continues playing to sold-out houses. With direction by Phyllida Lloyd and choreography by Anthony van Laast, the musical has several concert scenes but also has other characters singing Turner’s songs.
The bio-musical has clear similarities to two other recent shows: The Cher Show and Donna Summer : The Musical. Both Tina Turner and Cher married their singing partners and trusted them with all the money matters, so when the marriages dissolved, they found themselves financially strapped. Both Tina and Donna Summer dealt with abusive men, yet as strong women were able to overcome horrible situations and relaunch their singing careers.
Unlike the other two which cast three performers in the roles, Tina -The Tina Turner Musical places the full responsibility of carrying the show on only one actress. Having created the role in the original London cast, Adrienne Warren reprises the role on Broadway. Warren is electrifying, nonstop with long legs and a powerhouse voice. She even shimmies and gyrates with the Ikettes when the group performs. Her Nutbush, Tennessee accent gets slightly more pronounced as the show progresses but she is buoyant and lively, and oh, what a voice! Warren reaches the high notes with strength and power.
Tina Turner, born Anna Mae Bullock, is loved and adored by millions of fans but grew up feeling unloved. The musical at the Lunt- Fontanne Theatre begins at a church meeting and the irrepressible child Tina can’t help but belt out the church hymns, drawing attention to herself. Embarrassed at her daughter’s behavior, her mother Zelma (Dawnn Lewis) disciplines her.
Zelma’s relationship with her husband, Richard Bullock (David Jennings) is abusive and after another episode, Zelma finally leaves, taking only her older daughter. Tina remains behind, feeling rejected. However, she is raised by her loving grandmother, Gran Georgeanne (Myra Lucretia Taylor.) In later scenes Tina will recall her younger self as well as Gran, giving the two performers a chance to sing again.
Later when Tina turns 17, her grandmother sends her to live with her mother. One night, her sister takes her to a club where Ike Turner is performing, Cocky and arrogant, Ike, refers to himself as the Father of R & R. Well-portrayed by Daniel J. Watts (“Hamilton”), Ike recognizes Tina’s talents and charms Zelma into letting her younger daughter go on the road with him and his act. He changes Anna’s name to Tina and marries her. The musical illustrates the clear pattern of his abuse, yet she remains with him for 16 years until, like her mother, Tina finally takes her children and leaves him.
It takes a while for her to reinvent herself because Ike prevents her from singing the songs she’s known for. She struggles because no one wants to sign a black woman who is almost 40 years old. Some of the rejection is ageism, but racism is a major factor, as shown by the president of Capital Records. More importantly, Tina refuses to be manipulated by anyone again. She goes on tour in the US where her songs become hits. It is only then that Capitol agrees to her terms and signs her.
The best numbers are those presented as she records the songs or sings in concert. When songs are force-fed into other situations or sung by other performers, the musical isn’t as engaging. At her mother’s death, she sings “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” making the piece funereal. When she runs off battered, leaving Ike, she has no money for a room and pleads with a hotel manager to give her credit, and she sings, “I Don’t Wanna Fight.” Although Warren does the song well, it doesn’t resonate in that situation.
The musical ends with Tina’s concert in Brazil in front of 180,000 people and in the finale, after more than two hours Warren belts out “The Best.” Wearing high heels, she marches up and down the neon-lit stairway with energy. It’s hard to imagine anyone playing the role as well as Warren does.
And then there are more songs afterwards as if the musical is a concert with an encore including “Proud Mary.” Some may find the ending corny but most in the audience were on their feet, giddy with joy as if at a rock concert. Remarkably, Warren still seems refreshed and ready to go!
Tina Turner turns 80 this November but there’s no doubt that she could still give a great concert. However, she doesn’t have to. Her legacy is well-protected. I’m still a passionate fan of Tina Turner, and now I’m a fan of Adrienne Warren too.