There are many potential ways to begin this review. I could talk about the history of the seemingly unstoppable jukebox musical, or Adrienne Warren’s magnificent lead performance as Tina Turner (which towers over the musical in which she appears), or how to best interpret Tina Turner’s turbulent life story in the context of the #MeToo era, and so on. But instead, I’d like to begin with this thought: Is the generic, unexciting and repetitive title of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical really necessary? Is it going to get confused with Tina: The Tina Fey Musical (I have yet to hear anyone refer to Mean Girls that way) or Tina: The Tina Louise Musical? Given that the 79-year-old Turner is credited as an executive producer of the musical, it can be assumed that the title received her seal of approval.
As I waited in my seat for Tina, I could hear audience members all around me comparing and contrasting their favorite and least favorite jukebox musicals to date. I personally thought first of the jukebox musicals that had previously played the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, namely the similarly titled Summer: The Donna Summer Musical (which crashed and burned just a year ago) and the somewhat more successful Motown: The Musical (which benefited from an expansive hit song catalogue).
I also thought of Mamma Mia!, given that Tina is directed by Phyllida Lloyd, who more or less launched the jukebox musical phenomenon with the ABBA compilation musical. Tina marks the first jukebox musical to be directed by Lloyd since Mamma Mia! Meanwhile, Lloyd has been directing primarily classic works, including but not limited to Shakespeare plays set in prison with all-female casts. I had high hopes for Tina given that Lloyd managed to make Mamma Mia! into one of the most pleasant and satisfying, or at least tolerable, jukebox musicals. Though unapologetically flimsy and abundantly silly, Mamma Mia! works – and I would be more than happy to sit through it again. Also, given the amount of conflict in Turner’s life, there ought to be more than enough substance to provide for a gripping framework.
The biggest problem faced by Tina involves its awkward attempt to integrate roughly two dozen rock and R&B songs by different authors (including “Proud Mary,” “Private Dancer” and “What’s Love Got to Do with It”) into a narrative framework. “Nutbush City Limits” is the only hit song written by Turner herself. It would have been far easier from a dramatic perspective to present Tina as a play with songs, not like the 1993 film What’s Love Got to Do with It starring Angela Bassett, but that would probably have less commercial appeal.
The production is relatively muted, with emphasis placed on the character drama. The ensemble does little besides adding back-up singing and functions like window dressing. The full expanse of the stage is also concealed until the very end, with an extended concert sequence, which also proves to be the show’s major highlight, as the songs no longer require any narrative justification or context. It’s as if the first two and a half hours were just a lead-up to a triumphant celebratory curtain call and mega-medley.
The book (credited primarily to playwright Katori Hall, The Mountaintop) offers a straightforward, rushed and superficial dramatization of Turner’s journey from country girl (originally named Anna Mae Bullock) to abused wife and mother to struggling performer to international music star. The scenes tend to be overwrought and long-winded, resulting in an inflated running time. To her credit, Hall highlights the racism and sexism endured by Turner – as well as the physical and emotional abuse that she suffered during her years as the professional partner and spouse of Ike Turner (a flashy and restless Daniel J. Watts). Many moments are brutal and uncomfortable to watch.
Warren is the saving grave of Tina. (For the record, Warren only performs as Turner six times a week, with Nkeki Obi-Melekwe handling the matinees.) To say that Warren convincingly plays Tina Turner – or even that she effectively replicates Turner’s distinctively smoky singing voice – is a gross understatement. Rather, Warren (a Tony nominee for Shuffle Along) slowly and meticulously transforms into the iconic Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Tina springs to life whenever Warren sings in a performative context, such as onstage, before a television camera or in a sound recording studio. At these moments, Warren gets fired up, unleashes herself physically and vocally and morphs into a genuine superstar. And Tina: The Tina Turner Musical becomes Tina: The Adrienne Warren Musical.