There’s a terrific YouTube clip of Janis Joplin, resplendent in a 1969 splash of crimson, purple and gold, trying to explain to a square Dick Cavett why Tina Turner is her favorite singer, “the best chick ever.” The Ike and Tina Turner Revue, Joplin continues, includes Ike “her husband and bandleader.” But, Janis makes clear, “Tina’s the show.”
I can’t think of a better description for Tina – The Tina Turner Musical, opening tonight at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. An unsurprising by-the-books book, plenty of one-dimensional side characters – including that husband and bandleader – and the sort of expository dialogue done somewhat better than most jukebox musicals, but not enough.
But Tina, as spectacularly played by Broadway’s better-be-good for a Tony nomination star Adrienne Warren, is the show. Without resorting to the passingly impressive impersonation that won Stephanie J. Block the award last season for her Cher, Warren sings, strut-dances and acts her way through every well-known phase and incident of Turner’s much-chronicled life, career and survival.
Better than Broadway’s reigning, mostly enjoyable and definitely money-making example of the genre – the Temptations biomusical Ain’t Too Proud – Tina, directed by Phyllida Lloyd and crammed with one recognizable song after another from Turner’s five-decade career, opens with one of the best scene-setters I’ve encountered in a genre that usually leaves me cold, and ends with a mini-concert finale that for sheer out-of-your-seat excitement blows away any Broadway challenger.
What comes between those two scenes doesn’t – maybe can’t – come close to the promise of the first or the exhilaration of the last, but even with its declamatory dialogue (the disappointingly rote book is by Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins) and blunt, on-the-nose use of musical numbers as plot advancement and character definition. “Better Be Good To Me” Tina sings early to Ike (real-life song chronology be damned), and you won’t need a spoiler alert to know the warning will go horrifyingly unheeded.
That opening scene (following a brief prologue where we glimpse Tina in mostly-silhouette from behind, that ’80s explosion of hair instantly knowable) is unexpected mostly in its surprising effectiveness. Young Anna Mae Bullock (a scene-stealing Skye Turner, no relation, none needed) just can’t keep quiet or still during the rousing gospel songs at the rural Tennessee church, despite the repeated scoldings of her ever-criticizing mother. “Anna Mae, you aways too loud,” snaps Zelma (Dawnn Lewis). “You embarrass me. You embarrass yourself.”
Of course mom is wrong, or lying. Even as a tyke, dancing Anna Mae was singing better and, yes, louder than anyone, and she has even the preacher in awe, he and the entire congregation soon following the child’s lead from standard gospel to a gospel-ized “Nutbush City Limits.” That’s a theatrical leap that shouldn’t work, but does, and does so gleefully.
If you’ve read Turner’s 1986 autobiography I, Tina or saw the hit 1993 movie adaptation What’s Love Got To Do With It that earned Angela Bassett an Oscar nomination – or even if you didn’t – you’re familiar with the singer’s life story. Strict Southern upbringing by a mother incapable of showing love, discovery in her teens by guitarist Ike Turner, a decade of semi-success and then the massive breakthrough in 1970/71 with hit versions of Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher” and what would become her signature, the fantastically exciting (both musically and visually) “Proud Mary.”
And, of course, the abuse by the brutal Ike, whose resentment at the music industry falls cruelly on Tina. Little Anna Mae had already been exposed to the violence visited upon her mother by father Richard (Sheldon Henry at the reviewed performance, understudying for David Jennings), but unlike Zelma, Anna Mae – now Tina – doesn’t fight back.
Tina‘s first act ends with a bloodied and financially broke Tina pleading for a motel room, and Act II is largely Ike-less as we observe Turner’s MTV-friendly make-over by a couple young British hitmakers. She triumphs, of course, with 1984’s worldwide smash “What’s Love Got To Do With It”, but not without some friction with her two sons and a romantic relationship with the Swiss-born marketing exec Erwin Bach, 16 years her junior, that continues, in marriage, to this day.
There’s some second-act conflict with the British hit-making producers (they love a newly written song called “What’s Love Got To Do With It”, Tina hates it), a racist record company exec (the use of the N-word shocks, as it should), some ongoing mommy tribulations (don’t look for redemption here), a brief return of a sober Ike, and her unexpected love with the immediately smitten Bach. When he warns her that their relationship will be “taboo,” the pre-comeback Tina jokingly shrugs it off, describing their new infatuation as being “between a young hot white guy and an old black has-been singer.”
The cast mostly plays the roles with the heightened performance style that goes with this genre. Daniel J. Watts’ irredeemably villainous Ike gets the worst of it, though he gets some strong competition from Jessica Rush’s Rhonda, an early victim of Ike’s who becomes Tina’s longtime manager and great friend. Rush has little to do but recite exposition and be stalwart.
Played out on an often bare stage, with sticks of period furniture here and there and walls representing various locales dropping down when need be. The costumes, too, fit the decades, with Turner’s glorious Ikettes-era dazzling mini-skirts and pure-’80s MTV-ready jeans-and-leather look spot on. (Mark Thompson did both set and costume design.) Jeff Sugg’s projections, shifting from realism to abstract to the outright psychedelic, contribute greatly to the show’s various moods.
One gripe, though: What on earth could have possessed this production to shorten the iconic long, straight wig that was such an integral, swinging part of those Ike and Tina Tuner Revue “Proud Mary” dance moves? This Tina’s bob barely touches her shoulders.
But why quibble with that particular dance recreation, I suppose. The do-it-all Warren (and her ensemble of Ikettes) nail every sway, shimmy, shake, bend, outstretched arm and pony step that made the “Proud Mary” choreography (the real Tina’s, by the way) among the greatest in all of rock history. Choreographer Anthony Van Laast pays all due homage to Tina’s most famous original dance moves while capturing a similar spirit in scenes requiring new steps. Best of the latter: The opening scene, when little Anna Mae turns loose in church and has the rest of the believers following suit.
Another type of choreography altogether doesn’t fare as well: Fight scenes are tricky on stage, requiring slaps, wrestles and punches that should at the very least not be so obviously faked that they lose nearly all impact. A stage slap here and there can be overlooked, and Martin McDonough-style bloody realism would be impossible to sit through with so many of Ike’s vicious beatings. For the most part the fights seem more like indications of fights, taking us out of the moments. Perhaps mercifully.
But all is forgiven when the explosive mini-concert arrives, post-narrative. As the set expands up and sideways into a platformed expanse full of red and yellow lights, the full band is revealed and Warren performs an ecstatic song-and-dance, giving Tina the ending that somehow, someway, captures all the excitement, joy and flamboyance of that real-life woman whose name is finally and fittingly in the brightest of lights once more.