Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 7, 2019
Tina - The Tina Turner Musical Book by Katori Hall, with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Choreographed by Anthony Van Laast. Set and costumes design by Mark Thompson. Lighting design by Bruno Poet. Sound design by Nevin Steinberg. Projection design by Jeff Sugg. Wigs, hair, and makeup design by Campbell Young Associates. Orchestrations by Ethan Popp. Music Coordinator John Miller. Musical supervision, arrangements, additional music, and conductor Nicholas Skilbeck. Fight direction by Sordelet Inc. International associate director Ola Ince. US associate director Zhailon Levingston. International associate choreographer Simone Mistry-Palmer. US associate choreographer Janet Rothermel. Cast: Adrienne Warren, Daniel J. Watts, Dawnn Lewis, Nkeki Obi-Melek We, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Steven Booth, Gerald Caesar, Holli' Conway, Kayla Davion, Destinee Rea, Mars Rucker, Charlie Franklin, Matthew Griffin, David Jennings, Ross Lekites, Robert Lenzi, Gloria Manning, Jhardon Dishon Milton, Mars Rucker, Jessica Rush, Jayden Theophile, Antonio J. Watson, Skye Dakota Turner, Steven Booth, Nick Rashad Burroughs, Gerald Caesar, Judith Franklin, Carla R. Stewart, and Katie Webber.
Yes, she is that good. Rather, make that stunning. When Ike Turner (Daniel J. Watts), the man who would be her first professional mentor, husband, and, sadly, her chief abuser, first hears her singing, he says "I ain't never heard no woman spit fire like that girl did tonight." Whatever else you think of the man, he's got that part right. As Tina Turner, Adrienne Warren is the embodiment of adrenaline on steroids, with a voice to match. When she tears into the likes of "Proud Mary," "What's Love Got to Do With It," "Private Dancer," and "We Don't Need Another Hero," she blows the audience out of the water. Indeed, to protect the star's voice from blowing out as well, the role of Tina is performed on Wednesday and Saturday matinees by Nkeki Obi-Melekwe.
I emphasize Adrienne Warren's extraordinary performance (a) because it is extraordinary, and (b) because I'm going to suggest to you that it is well worth the price of a Broadway ticket to experience it for yourself, despite the fact that, along with the singing, there is the "bio" part of Tina to slog through.
Not even the rock concert that pumps up the crowd at the end of the evening can hide the fact that Tina, directed at breakneck speed by Phyllida Lloyd, zips through the singer's life story as quickly as the scenery flies on and off the stage and the cast spins out of sight on the turntable. In the wink of an eye, one year, five years, a decade and more pass by. The young Anna-Mae Bullock (Skye Dakota Turner, a powerhouse singer in her own right) from Nutbush, Tennessee, shows up just long enough to be abandoned by her mother Zelma (Dawnn Lewis), who flees from her own abusive situation, taking with her Tina's older sister Alline (played by Gloria Manning as a child, and by Mars Rucker as a woman). Next thing you know, Anna-Mae is all grown and morphing into Tina Turner the rising R&B star, while suffering within a marriage of (in)convenience to a brutish Ike Turner. Then, 16 more years flash by and she finally walks out on Ike and faces the world on her own. Who can keep up?
Playwright Katori Hall, who wrote the show's book in collaboration with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins, emphasizes Tina's ambition to leave the R&B image behind her and reshape herself into a full-blown rock star, and the odds she faces as a black woman and as an older singer trying to break through in a world run by white male business types and managers.
There is no question but that this struggle against sexism, racism and ageism is an extremely important story that needs to be told repeatedly until it finally sinks in, about the painful assumptions about "the way things are done." But in this respect, and except for the specifics, Tina is not much different from The Cher Show or Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. And that is a problemfinding a new way to tell this story within the restraining confines of a bio-musical.
When Summer opened at this very same theater in the spring of 2018, I thought how wonderful it would have been if LaChanze, by far the best of the three "Summers" in the show, had simply performed a Donna Summer concert, coupled with her telling stories about her character's life. Instead, what we got was a Wikipedia-like compilation of biographical facts that kept interrupting the good stuff: the singing. That's how I feel about Tina. The cast as a whole is fine, but, really, everyone but the star is there to cover the biographical territory; not even Ike Turner is any more than a bit player in comparison. Who goes to a bio-musical for the "bio" parts anyway? Let the star tell her own story here, and let her sing to her heart's content. Now that's a show I would happily endorse without the least hesitation.