If a single voice, or a single performance, could send a Broadway musical soaring to greatness, “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” would handily qualify as one of the best musicals to emerge in recent years. Playing the title role, Adrienne Warren, who is blessedly onstage for virtually the whole duration, gives a performance that marries electrifying vocalism, a powerful dynamism and affecting emotional agility. Warren, who created the role in the musical’s West End premiere, is simply incandescent.
Unfortunately even a transcendent performance cannot lift a mediocre musical to stratospheric heights — or at least it can do so only intermittently. When Warren’s Tina fully takes over the stage, legs kicking like pistons, sultry voice riding the currents of a series of surging pop and rock hits, “Tina” touches on the sublime. But these moments are too rare in what is essentially another middling jukebox bio-musical, of the recently booming diva subdivision.
It follows shows about Cher, Donna Summer, Carole King and Gloria Estefan, and lands somewhere toward the top of the pack, at least. But like those shows, it cannot entirely surmount the challenges of fully dramatizing a life while also serving up frequent doses of serotonin-inducing nostalgia through the performance of beloved songs — songs that were not, as is painfully obvious throughout the show, written to play any part in a cogent narrative arc, much less a specifically biographical one. (An exception is the semi-autobiographical “Nutbush City Limits.”)
Turner’s life story is arguably more tensely dramatic than those of some of the other pop stars whose careers and songbooks have been uncomfortably paired onstage. As many will know — her bestselling autobiography was adapted into a popular movie —Turner’s rise to fame was shadowed by an abusive marriage to Ike Turner (the wiry if not wholly menacing Daniel J. Watts), who discovered her, exploited her for more than a decade and frequently resorted to violence to keep her under his thumb.
The book, by Katori Hall (“The Mountaintop”) with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins, churns through her pre-Ike years quickly, with a young Anna Mae Bullock (as Turner was born), played by Skye Dakota Turner. Here it is bluntly established how Anna Mae was unwanted by her mother, Zelma (a flinty Dawnn Lewis), who is both abused by and abusive toward her husband, Richard (David Jennings). Anna Mae is ultimately left in the care of her grandmother, Gran Georgeanna (the stately Myra Lucretia Taylor) until Georgeanna twists Zelma’s arm into inviting Anna Mae to live with her and Anna Mae’s sister in St. Louis, urging Tina to develop the powerful voice that she had revealed in church in her childhood.
Anna Mae’s parting with her grandmother is musically dramatized by the song “Don’t Turn Around,” which is one of the more effective integrations of song and story, although those familiar with Turner’s career may still find it jarring to hear this hit from her late resurgence repurposed to illuminate a moment in her early years. But there are more unfortunate juxtapositions ahead: Once Anna Mae has been rebranded by Ike as Tina, and the band is touring, Tina’s attempt to break off a relationship with a band member, Raymond (the excellent if minimally used Gerald Caesar), is set to a duet of the song “Let’s Stay Together.” Lyrically it’s logical, I suppose, but with Caesar taking lead vocals for much of it, and the arrangements emphasizing sentiment, it can only compare unfavorably to Turner’s own smoldering version of the song.
Perhaps more bizarre is the interpolation of “Better Be Good to Me” (another late-career solo song) sung by Tina just after Ike, who has already demonstrated that he is likely to be anything but good to her, has casually asked her to marry him. Weirdest of all is the inevitable inclusion of the popular song “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” with its out-of-context references to the Thunderdome, of the “Mad Max” sequel fame.
While Ike is given a humanizing (and well-wrought) monologue describing the violent death of his father — killed for having an affair with a white woman — Tina’s reasons for agreeing to his proposal are somewhat blurry and maladroitly handled with the equivalent of a dramatic shrug. It happened; let’s move on! The fundamental trouble with bio-musicals of this sort is that, with so many songs to shoehorn into the narrative, there is rarely much time for psychological nuance.
Even Tina, at the center of the show, is drawn mostly in brisk, superficial strokes: Long a victim, eventually near-suicidal, finally empowered to fight for herself and her children, and, in the second post-Ike act, an artist who regenerates her career independently, with the help of a pair of London-based producers and songwriters. The book proceeds through these highs and lows of Turner’s life with an unexceptionable efficiency but little insight or inspiration. The talented director Phyllida Lloyd (“Mamma Mia!”) does not exactly cover herself in glory with her workmanlike staging, which is little helped by Mark Thompson’s mostly generic set designs and the (intentionally) blurry but not very atmospheric projections of Jeff Sugg.
But, and it’s a big one, then there is Warren, previously seen on Broadway in “Shuffle Along,” here displaying her protean vocal and dramatic talents on a vastly larger scale. Warren wisely doesn’t attempt mimicry — except perhaps just a little on the nigh-unforgettable Turner vocals on “Proud Mary” — but possesses the kind of smoky, rangy and ferociously powerful voice that can match Turner’s own formidable instrument, even when backed by the famous “Wall of Sound” of Phil Spector. (The character of Phil is dispatched with quickly, and good riddance, one vicious miscreant in a musical being enough.) She also brings a full-blooded humanity to her characterization, fleshing out the routine writing to create a convincing portrait of a complicated and often conflicted woman.
When Warren is portraying Tina singing one of her great barn-burning songs in performance mode — “Proud Mary” and “River Deep, Mountain High,” given reprises in the roof-raising finale being the most exhilarating — the musical flares into searing life, as if a flame burning low had suddenly shot up. And while the orchestra numbers only about a dozen, they make a mighty sound.
But not mighty enough to distract from the luster of Warren at center stage, moving with a ferocity to match the soulful intensity of her singing — in heels, no less, and even rocketing up and down a fearsome-looking pile of stairs as if she’s strolling on a Stairmaster.
In an early scene Gran Georgeanna describes Tina’s voice as being “like fire and heaven all at once.” That’s one of the rare glints of poetry in the script, but it’s also a perceptive description not just of Tina’s voice, but of Warren’s astonishing embodiment of a great artist at the scorching height of her powers.
“Tina: The Tina Turner” musical opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Thurs., Nov. 7. 2019.
Creative: Directed by Phyllida Lloyd; Book by Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins; Choreographed by Anthony Van Laast; Scenic Design by Mark Thompson; Costume Design by Mark Thompson; Lighting Design by Bruno Poet; Sound Design by Nevin Steinberg; Projection Design by Jeff Sugg.
Producers: Stage Entertainment, James L. Nederlander, Tali Pelman, Feste Investment B.V., David Mirvish, Nattering Way, TEG Dainty, Katori Hall, Mark Rubinstein LTD, Warner Chappell, Peter May, Eva Price, No Guarantees, Luigi Caiola, Jamie deRoy, Wendy Federman, Roy Furman, Independent Presenters Network, John Gore Organization, Marc Levine, Carl Moellenberg, Al Nocciolino, Catherine Adler, Tom Perakos, Daryl Roth, Iris Smith, Candy Spelling and Anita Waxman; Produced in association with Tina Turner.
Cast: Adrienne Warren, Dawnn Lewis, Nkeki Obi-Melekwe, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Daniel J. Watts, Steven Booth, Nick Rashad Burroughs, Gerald Caesar, Holli’ Conway, Kayla Davion, Charlie Franklin, Judith Franklin, Matthew Griffin, David Jennings, Ross Lekites, Robert Lenzi, Gloria Manning, Jhardon Dishon Milton, Desitnée Rea, Mars Rucker, Jessica Rush, Carla Stewart, Jayden Theophile, Skye Dakota Turner, Antonio J. Watson and Katie Webber.