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Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Tina - The Tina Turner Musical
National Tour
Review by Patrick Thomas

Zurin Villanueva and Cast
Photo by Patrick Murphy for MurphyMade
"That man got a way of talkin' folks into doin' things they don't want to do." These words, spoken by Zurin Villanueva, playing rock and soul icon Tina Turner in Tina - The Tina Turner Musical, cuts right to the heart of this thrilling if uneven show that opened this week in a touring production hosted by BroadwaySF at the Golden Gate Theatre. The "man" to whom Tina is referring is her notorious husband Ike, a violent womanizer who physically and emotionally abused Tina throughout their relationship.

Tina oscillates between two states, rather like someone with bipolar disorder who finds themselves in alternating moods of depression and mania. Act I is mostly depression, as we see Tina's early years of hardship in the little town of Nutbush, Tennessee. Young Tina (then Anna-Mae Bullock) is played with enormous sass–and a stage presence beyond her years–by the immensely talented Ayvah Johnson. Little Anna-Mae is a powerhouse singer at church, but is unappreciated by her mother Zelma (Ron White), who scolds her daughter for singing too loudly and drowning out the rest of the choir.

In addition to being unappreciated for her vocal talents, Anna-Mae lives a hardscrabble life: her father beats her mother, who abandons Anna-Mae, taking her sister Alline with her to live in St. Louis. When dad also flees the scene, Anna-Mae goes to live with her grandmother Georgeanna (Ann Nesby). Anna-Mae picks cotton to help make ends meet, but is sent at 17 to reunite with her mother and sister.

During a night on the town with her sister, Anna-Mae visits a nightclub where Ike Turner (Roderick Lawrence) and his band, the Kings of Rhythm, are playing. During one number, Ike passes the mic around to the different women in the crowd to sing along with the band. When it comes to Anna-Mae, her vocal prowess wows both the crowd and Ike, who brings her on board as a vocalist and changes her name to Tina, and the group's name to the Ike and Tina Turner Revue.

With Ike's musical talents and Tina's roaring, gravelly voice, the act is a hit, touring the country and later the world.

Despite their success, life on the road isn't a happy one for Tina, with an abusive husband and a pair of babies to care for. When she finally summons the courage to leave Ike, she's left almost penniless, and will have to remake herself in a world that has little room for a middle-aged woman of color.

Act II takes us on this journey of reinvention for Tina, and though there are many energetic moments in the first act–especially the performance of "River Deep, Mountain High," the Phil Spector-produced mega-hit, and "Shake a Tailfeather"–it's the second half of the show where the mania really kicks in, especially in the encores, when the entire cast raise the roof of the Golden Gate with powerhouse performances of "Nutbush City Limits" and "Proud Mary."

The cast is composed of excellent singers, though the acting can be a little pro forma. It's also a little jarring when characters who aren't performers break into song, but the overall energy of the show is infectious. Kudos to bookwriter Katori Hall (with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins) and director Phyllida Lloyd for avoiding the trap of excess exposition, choosing to show us the important points in Tina's life, rather than telling us about them. Like Rick Elice's highly efficient book for Jersey Boys, Tina gives its audience credit for paying attention to small details in projections and character actions to tell a rich and complex story.

As Tina, Zurin Villanueva expends enough energy over the course of 2.5 hours to recharge many times over every cell phone that wasn't stowed during the performance–and there were sadly many sneaking videos and checking texts. Luckily for Villanueva, she alternates the role with Naomi Rodgers, as each woman will clearly need some downtime after inhabiting one of show business's most electric performers.

One final nit to pick: the wig. The iconic "do" that Tina sported during the last half of her career is rendered here as a rather flat mop top. The length is right, but it just doesn't have the spikiness that anyone who ever watched a Tina Turner video in the '80s or '90s would recognize. It looks as though it had been stuffed into a hat box and pulled out at the last minute and plopped on Zurin's head. As I say, this is a nit, but the hair was a big part of Tina's look, and a little more care should have been taken by Campbell Young Associates, who were responsible for wig, hair and makeup design.

Tina - The Tina Turner Musical runs through August 27 at SHN's Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco. Tickets range from $76.50-$179.50, and are available by calling the box office at 888-746-1799 or by visiting .