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Theatre in Review: Tina: The Tina Turner Musical (Lunt-Fontanne Theatre)

Adrienne Warren, Daniel J. Watts. Photo: Manuel Harlan.

God broke the mold when He created Tina Turner -- and, in many ways, Tina breaks the mold of Broadway musical star bios. The redundantly titled Tina: The Tina Turner Musical adheres firmly to the template offered by Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and The Cher Show: A talented, determined (but naïve and unformed) young talent is taken up by a Svengali lover who makes her a star -- but whose controlling and/or abusive ways keep her in a stranglehold. Ultimately, he must be jettisoned so she can become the earth mother/diva/icon of fabulousness we know and love. Like its predecessors, Tina is a pulpy feminist fable, told in broad, graphic-novel strokes that eschew nuance and leave the stage littered with dangling plot strands. Furthermore, hers is a well-documented life, thanks to memoirs, biographies, countless interviews, and an award-winning film. If you know anything about Tina Turner -- and if you don't, why are you at the Lunt-Fontanne? -- you already know the story, backwards and forwards.

Still, Tina Turner has lived an authentically melodramatic life -- she comes by her tragedy and triumph honestly -- and, for all its clichés, the book -- by Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar, and Kees Prins -- is surprisingly tough-minded about a number of matters. These include the star's parents: Her father, a plantation overseer, is seen physically abusing his wife and daughters; her mother, Zelma, gives as good as she gets, fighting back fiercely and, ultimately, abandoning her marriage and the younger daughter she resents. That would be Tina, and their ambivalent relationship provides one of the show's underpinnings, climaxing in a deathbed scene that falls short of a full reconciliation. Tina's troubled marriage to Ike Turner ends in a brawl, with her escaping only after a couple of well-placed kicks to the groin. Nor does the show soften her sordid years of showbiz exile, spent toiling in cheesy Vegas revues, raising two restless boys, and running up debt. She is, at times, indecisive and demanding of others, as well as a neglectful parent. This is a simplified version of the star's life, but it isn't an unduly prettified one.

Then there's Adrienne Warren, as the title character, the show's official storm center, and about as authoritative a Tina Turner as it is possible to get. The early portion of the first act whirls around her, leaving her slightly indistinct, as she leaves Nutbush, Tennessee, for St. Louis, is taken up by Ike, and becomes both the centerpiece of his traveling revue and his chief object of abuse. Warren races through these scenes, singing and acting with vigor, but it isn't until Tina ends up in Phil Spector's studio that the stardust begins to gather. She is there to record "River Deep, Mountain High," which she intends to vocalize in her usual frenetic manner, ornamented with plenty of vocal tricks. But the famously exacting Spector slows her down and makes her really listen to the arrangement; he tells her to sing "like you're singing to the god in yourself." You can practically see the light go on in her head; she takes his point, begins again, and a pop diva is born.

The "River Deep, Mountain High" session has other, unforeseen repercussions that set her on the road to independence. Ike, fearful of her enjoying a breakout success and plainly terrified that Tina will leave him, once again has at her. After a major dose of tough love from Zelma, who tells her, in time-honored stage-mother fashion, "Go on out there and give them people what they been waiting on," she delivers a scorching "Proud Mary," and one sees how carefully Warren has laid the groundwork for the transition of Anna-Mae Bullock, country girl, into the indelible, indomitable Tina Turner. A few minutes later, beaten bloody by Ike and wearing only a slip, she staggers into a motel and, without a cent to her name, begs, heartbreakingly, for a place to stay. Remarkably, Warren convinces us that the same woman who burns up the stage with her smarts and sexuality also cowers in terror of the bully who shares her bed. It's a tough assignment and she pulls it off brilliantly.

Tina, which has been directed by Phyllida Lloyd with enough energy to power the Northeast Grid, also benefits from the presence of Daniel J. Watts as Ike, whose most monstrous traits are clearly forged in the pressures of being a black man in midcentury America. (A scene in which he and his company are denied rooms at a Mississippi motel, then extorted by the local police, tells you plenty about the indignities he endures.) Coming on dapper and confident in the early scenes, he degenerates precipitously, becoming increasingly pathetic as his hold on Tina loosens. Dawnn Lewis makes a fearsome Zelma, spoiling for an argument even on her deathbed. Also making solid contributions are Myra Lucretia Taylor as Tina's down-home grandmother; Charlie Franklin as Roger Davies, the Aussie producer who successfully pushes a reluctant Tina toward an Eighties pop sound; and Ross Lekites as Erwin Bach, the publicist Tina falls in love with and, ultimately, marries. Special mention goes to little Skye Dakota Turner (no relation to Tina) as the young Anna-Mae, who tears up her country congregation with raise-the-roof vocals. Give her a decade or two and she'll be ready to play the adult Tina.

The production is further driven by Anthony Van Laast's choreography, which accurately recreates the funky-chicken style of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue and amusingly evokes the threadbare inventions of Tina's Vegas period. Mark Thompson's scenic design sketches in any number of locations with remarkable economy, saving his punchiest work for the rock concert finale. He is aided enormously by Jeff Sugg's projections, which fill the upstage screen with scene-setting skylines and kicky, Sixties-style graphics, including pulsing, colorful sound waves and psychedelic liquid-light shows. His work is crucial to the nightmarish sequence in which Tina flees Ike, wandering into highway traffic. (Thompson's costumes keep track of changing styles and changing times while also commenting on Ike's decline and Tina's constantly changing fortunes.) Bruno Poet's lighting ranges from Southern sunsets to pulsing rock-concert effects, including mirror ball effects, vertical striplights on the proscenium for eye candy, and blinders for an eleventh-hour coup de théâtre. Nevin Steinberg's sound design is unusually loud for Broadway, but it conveys the excitement of Tina's music. (Be warned: The cast performs like rock singers, which means their diction is substandard, and Warren's voice, at the lower end of her range, sometimes gets a little lost under Ethan Popp's orchestrations.)

Tina is nobody's idea of a great musical; it adheres the standard musical bio format, it never knows what to do with the leading character's Buddhism, and certain supporting characters, including her sister, Alline, and sons, Craig and Ronnie, often pass through, seemingly looking for a subplot to contain them. Nevertheless, it earns its distinction with some unusually astringent writing and a stunning star performance. It provides a dynamism that few other similar shows have been able to muster; it's one musical that earns its standing ovations. -- David Barbour

(15 November 2019)

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