An editor with a not-so-ulterior motive leaned over my desk when I was on deadline with a Broadway review and opined that even a lousy show could be saved by one terrific effect – a helicopter thrumming away from a raucous crowd, say, or a crystal chandelier careening above the swells in an opera house. No, I said under my breath, it can’t.
Perhaps I was mistaken. Tina: The Tina Turner Musical has arrived after smacking London in the gob. It’s not at all a lousy show, but Adrienne Warren’s performance in the title role has the roaring lift of a helicopter taking flight and the dazzling sparkle of a hundred chandeliers, making Tina a musical not to miss. I came out of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre feeling as though I’d just seen Serena Williams on center court, Simone Biles on the balance beam and Bessie Smith singing “Downhearted Blues,” all rolled into one mesmerizing package. Yes, Warren is that good. You will remember her name.
Tina is the rags-to-ruin tale of Anna Mae Bullock, a gospel-loving child with a larger-than-life voice, abandoned to an abusive father and loving grandmother in Nutbush, a suburb of a Tennessee backwater. Years later, Anna Mae is reunited with her mother and older sister in St. Louis, where she’s discovered by bandleader Ike Turner (the very good Daniel J. Watts, whose impersonation falls critically short, however, in the vocals department) at a dance club. Ike’s ears perk and eyes pop when Anna Mae duets with him. “I went to see my doctor, asked him what was wrong,” they sing, “He gave me an examination, I was chilled through my bones.” Well, she was just 17, if you know what I mean…
Later that night, Ike is sweet-talking mama Zelma (Dawn Lewis) and big sister Alline (Mars Rucker) into allowing Anna Mae to join him on the road (“I’m sure a sweet girl like Anna Mae would send some money home,” he coos. “To her mama.”) What follows will be familiar to the many fans of Tina Turner’s 1986 autobiography, I, Tina. Also the 1993 film based on it, What’s Love Got to Do With It, named for the Grammy Record of the Year that had marked her triumphant return as a solo artist after years of abuse at Ike’s hands and a desultory post-divorce life.
To its credit, Katori Hall’s perfunctory book (co-written with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prinz) doesn’t make Ike a mustache-twirling villain. We see his various humiliations as other R&B talents surpass him in crossing over to the mainstream (read: white) market. We sense his hunger as well as anger: He can’t get two sentences into a conversation without dropping the fact that he wrote what’s generally acknowledged to have been the first rock 'n roll song, “Rocket 88.” (I’m partial to The Detonators’ tribute cover.)
Of course, neither Hall nor director Phyllida Lloyd gloss the brutality of what Tina Turner survived, and it hardly could be otherwise: The star and her husband, Erwin Bach, are executive producers of the show. The violence is not restricted to Ike’s physical assaults on Tina but includes his ferocious pushing of the rest of his back-up women, The Ikettes, to out-go-go dance every other act. He turns the Ike & Tina Turner Review into a mash-up of Vegas styles that sometimes has more in common with a boxing match than a concert.
Indeed, Anthony Van Laast’s choreography is so physically jarring that I half expected assorted limbs to star flying out into the orchestra. The dancers (Holli’ Conway, Kayla Davion, Destinee Rea and Mars Rucker) are simply spectacular as they ramp it up to appease Ike.
Warren is every bit their equal, adding that elusive something of star power. She’s rarely off-stage, and neither her full-throated, octave-scaling voice nor her thrusting, shimmying, grinding, ecstasy-inducing moves show any signs of fading before the night is through. Yes, the hits are all here, from “River Deep – Mountain High” and “Proud Mary” to “Private Dancer” and “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” Warren pulls off something rare and artful in a biomusical, emulating without imitating. The effect is exhilarating. (Tina is played at Wednesday and Saturday matinees by Nkeke Obi-Melekwe, and I look forward to seeing her in the role.)
Mark Thompson is credited with the sets, which are mostly generic with one or two surprises, and the costumes, which are sexy brilliant. Lloyd includes a few wig and costume changes for Warren onstage while the action continues to whorl around her, a nice touch in connecting us viscerally to the performance.
I wish the superb band were onstage throughout the show, instead of just at the end. But that’s a small nit. Early on, Tina becomes a Buddhist and eventually finds her bliss in middle age, when has-beenism threatened. Her triumph is palpably felt – and love has everything to do with it.