Tina: The Tina Turner Musical
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Tina Turner is no stranger to the art of transformation. Growing up in a poor Tennessee household in the 1940s and possibly destined to be a sharecropper, Anna Mae Bullock first became one of the country’s most popular and glamorous R&B singers in the 1960s and 1970 after meeting (and marrying) the dynamic if controlling Ike Turner. She then had to perform a similar act of prestidigitation again in the 1980s, after both leaving the abusive Ike and being virtually abandoned by show business, only to re-emerge, phoenix-like, as one of the most successful pop artists of all time!
Therefore, it’s only fitting that in the entertaining “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” now at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, the super-spectacular Adrienne Warren undergoes her own act of transformation to become the embodiment of Turner. This petite powerhouse not only continuously lifts this often-earthbound show into the stratosphere, Warren expends so much energy on stage that she could probably power a rocket into space.
On one level, the show’s director Phyllida Lloyd (“Mamma Mia”) and book writer Katori Hall (“The Mountaintop”) have essentially succeeded in their main goal, presenting Tina as a symbol of female empowerment – a woman who reclaimed her life on her own terms and ended up blazing a trail for many artists to come. (The show concludes at Turner’s 1988 concert in Brazil, which was attended by a record-setting audience of 180,000 people!)
What they haven’t done, though, is told Turner’s extraordinary life story with the gravity, never mind accuracy, it deserves. (This is doubly problematic, given how much of it the audience already knows, both from Turner’s own autobiography and the acclaimed 1993 biofilm, “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”) Hall’s book (like most other shows of this genre) eliminates entire vitals characters (including her two adopted sons), compresses and changes timelines, and seriously alters the course of well-known events for little real dramatic purpose.
It’s also so focused squarely on Turner (perhaps not surprising as the singer herself is an executive producer) that every other character on stage is basically reduced to a two-dimensional sketch. Luckily, Lloyd has cast the piece with extreme savvy, coaxing remarkably full-bodied portrayals most notably from Daniel T. Watts (especially good as the deeply troubled Ike) and Dawnn Lewis (as Tina’s hard-bitten mother Zelma). And, yes Virginia, little Skye Dakota Turner practically steals the show as young Anna Mae. (Fortunately, Warren doesn’t have to share the stage with any animals!)
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the show is that it never finds a consistent way to present the music Turner made famous. The show’s high points come when we watch “Tina” perform such hits as “Proud Mary” and “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” and during one scene in a recording studio, where the legendary Phil Spector (Steven Booth) coaxes out the stunning 1966 single “River Deep, Mountain High.” And using some of her other best-known songs in place of dialogue, most notably “Let’s Stay Together” and “Better Be Good to Me,” works reasonably well.
Unfortunately, the idea of utilizing hit tunes like “Private Dancer,” “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” and, especially “We Don’t Need Another Hero” (sung, for some indecipherable reason, as Tina scatters her dead mother’s ashes into a river) as quasi-commentary on her life is, at best, moderately successful -- even though Warren sings every note and phrase with amazing conviction.
Sadly, Lloyd’s production is rather cheap-looking, with minimalist sets by Mark Thompson (who also provides the so-so costumes), and relies too much on Jeff Sugg’s projections to give us any sense of time or place. Moreover, Anthony Van Laast’s workmanlike choreography is disappointing, even though he has a killer ensemble to execute it.
Is Warren simply the best musical performer currently on Broadway? Without question. Unfortunately, though, “Tina” is far from the best biomusical, not just ever, but even now currently playing in New York.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Adrienne Warren, Daniel J. Watts, Dawnn Lewis, Nkeki Obi-Melekwe, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Steven Booth
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New York, NY 10036