Many of us grew up listening to Tina Turner‘s soulful vocals, and learned about her personal life from her revealing memoir, I, Tina, and the 1993 biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It? As much as Angela Bassett embodied the queen of rock n roll, the spirit of Tina Turner also lives within powerhouse talent, Adrienne Warren. Her performance in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical is electrifying. (Nkeki Obi-Melekwe steps into Turner’s dancing shoes during matinees.)
Like the film’s iconic opening scene, the play begins with a young Anna Mae Bullock singing in a Nutbush, Tennessee church during the 1940s. Matching her elder counterpart’s out of this world vocals, actress Skye Dakota Turner blew the top off the theater with a gospel rendition of “Nutbush City Limits.” From that moment, it was clear that Tina is something special.
Helmed by director Phyllida Lloyd and written by The Mountaintop playwright Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins, Tina follows the traditional beats of a musical biopic. A teenage Turner, at the urging of her ailing Gran Georgeanna (Myra Lucretia Taylor), leaves behind her southern hometown for St. Louis. Turner moves to the city with her stern and emotionally withholding mother, Zelma (A Different World alum Dawnn Lewis), and sister Alline (Mars Rucker). There is, of course, a significant focus on the icon’s relationship and marriage with the volatile Ike Turner (Daniel J. Watts), and their work as The Ike and Tina Turner Revue. However, Lloyd and the writers’ handling of the Ike and Tina years, as well as Warren’s passionate and tireless performance, elevates Tina to one of the most exquisite performances on Broadway.
The domestic violence that Turner experienced at the hands of Ike is very present in the show. However, Warren never allows Turner to become only a victim. Instead, as the story progresses, Watt’s Kings of Rhythm frontman becomes a caricature of himself. Consumed by greed, addiction, and jealousy, in the end, what remains of Tina’s Ike Turner are a tragic Sonny Bono-like wig and an obsession with gaslighting. Watts plays the role perfectly, without giving the late musician more than simple humanity. As Tina becomes more assured of herself, Ike fades into the background, like the forgotten man he never wanted to become. The violence in the show is brutal, but the feminist undertones stand throughout.
Tina also takes the time to showcase the strained relationship between Turner and her mother and sister. The singer’s relationship with her sister Alline isn’t as fully fleshed out as it could have been; we see only small snippets of their sisterhood throughout the show, first when Turner arrives in St. Louis and later when she puts her son in Alline’s care after leaving Ike. However, the true intricacies of their bond aren’t fully seen. In contrast, the relationship Turner shares with Zelma gives real roots to Turner’s own journey as a wife and mother. Their fractured bond provides some understanding of Turner’s mindset when it came to staying in a near two-decade marriage with Ike.
The show isn’t faultless. The incorporation of the songstress’ turn to Buddhism wasn’t as seamless as it could have been. We see the moment Turner is introduced to the religion and we hear her chanting throughout the show. However, the profound impact the practice had on her life is never touched upon. Also, while the inclusion of songs like, “Better Be Good To Me,” a cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” and “Proud Mary” is thrilling, other song choices like “Be Tender With Me Baby” and “We Don’t Need Another Hero” are placed oddly throughout the acts. In an effort to effort to try and fit in as much of Turner’s discography as possible, songs that didn’t quite match the tone of certain scenes were thrown in as fillers. They’re only held together by the sheer magnetism of Warren’s voice. Yet, it is creditworthy that nearly every song is delivered in full instead of in the snippets that musicals often fall back on.
As soon as Warren opens her mouth, delivering extraordinary vocal after vocal, accompanied by those whip-fast dance moves of shimmies and shakes, the small ruffles and bumps in the play are quickly forgotten. The energy, sheer power and charisma that the Tony Award nominee exudes are so mesmerizing; it’s as if you’re watching the legend herself on stage. Moreover, the impactfulness of Turner’s five-decade-long career, one that did not really skyrocket until she was in her 40s, is a narrative that we can all appreciate.
As a tip, just be sure to stay for the numerous encores; it’s a show in and of itself.
Tina: The Tina Turner Musical celebrated its official opening on November 7. The show began October 12 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
Photo: Manuel Harlan
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic, consultant and entertainment editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide
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