'Tina': Theater Review
Rock legend Tina Turner’s turbulent life story gets the jukebox bio-musical treatment from 'Mamma Mia!' director Phyllida Lloyd.
As rock’s most famous domestic violence survivor, Tina Turner’s tumultuous life story has long been ripe for a dramatic jukebox musical, but it gains extra topical bite with the advent of global feminist campaigns like #MeToo. Executive produced by the 78-year-old soul-pop siren and her German husband Erwin Bach, Tina sheds little new light on a familiar triumph-over-adversity story already laid out in Turner’s best-selling 1986 autobiography I, Tina and Brian Gibson’s 1993 film What’s Love Got to Do With It. Even so, Phyllida Lloyd’s production is a rollicking rollercoaster ride, delivered with stylistic verve and fireball energy by a high-caliber cast and crew.
Launching Tina in London makes sense on various levels. This is the city where Turner hatched her big career comeback in the early 1980s, and several key scenes take place here. The singer has also spent the last three decades in Europe, where audiences have generally been more supportive of her bumpy career than in the U.S. But Turner’s globally feted canon of gold-plated chart anthems should make this show an attractive franchise prospect in other markets, too, especially to older fans who fondly remember the singer’s haystack-haired, turbo-tonsiled heyday. Tina feels like a hit.
Fittingly, the talent pool behind Tina is a heavily female. Director Lloyd is best known for her ABBA musical Mamma Mia!, a global smash on stage and screen, which is still playing in the West End 19 years later barely two blocks away from the Aldwych. Making her London stage debut, star Adrienne Warren steps into the spotlight following a handful of TV and Broadway credits, including a Tony-nominated turn opposite Audra McDonald in Shuffle Along in 2016.
The book for Tina was co-written by Katori Hall, whose fictionalized account of Martin Luther King’s final few hours, The Mountaintop, won an Oliver Award in London in 2009 before making its Broadway debut two years later. By fateful coincidence, that New York production co-starred Angela Bassett, who played Turner onscreen in What’s Love Got to Do With It.
Tina condenses Turner’s life into a classic bio-drama mix of hard knocks, broad brushstrokes and pivotal tipping points. When we first meet the ebullient Anna May Bullock (winningly played on press night by Claudia Elie, one of three young girls sharing the role) she is drowning out fellow churchgoers with her gale-force voice in Nutbush, Tennessee. She soon morphs into the teenage Anna Mae (Warren), whose disapproving mother Zelma (Madeline Appah) steers her into the predatory clutches of the charismatic but domineering bandleader Ike Turner (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith). Motherhood, marriage, a new name and pop fame all follow in rapid succession. But Ike's increasingly abusive, drug-fueled behavior finally drives a near-suicidal Turner to quit the band and file for divorce.
The second act opens with Turner struggling to scrape out a living as a washed-up nostalgia act in late 1970s Las Vegas. The wrong side of 40, and seemingly past her commercial prime, she is cruelly shunned by openly racist record company executives. But with support from brash young Australian manager Roger Davies (Ryan O’Donnell) and new German lover Erwin Bach (Gerard McCarthy), she begins turning her career around.
Securing a lucrative record deal with help from David Bowie (sadly not featured here, only teasingly mentioned), Turner starts work in London with a fresh team of British producers and songwriters. The resulting comeback album, Private Dancer, will sell 20 million copies, win four Grammy Awards and relaunch Turner as a stadium-filling pop superstar. However, the resentful Ike remains a constant phantom menace, always lurking in the shadows.
Tina is mostly a high-voltage showcase for Warren, who is rarely offstage and constantly in motion for almost the entirety of this two-hours-plus production. Petite and slender, the 31-year-old Virginia native lacks Turner’s warrior-queen physique and earthy, sweat-soaked, thunderdome roar. In fact, she could more easily pass for a young Diana Ross than Turner. And yet she still delivers an uncanny masterclass in minutely finessed mimicry, especially in the later musical numbers, where she hones to perfection the singer’s bison-legged stomp-dance and unique sandpaper vibrato. For athletic stamina at the very least, this is a star-making performance.
Working in tandem with Dutch duo Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins, Hall’s playwriting skills are not exactly overtaxed here. Most of the dialogue is bluntly on the nose, the characters mono-dimensional heroes or villains, the default tone soapy to the point of kitsch. Squeezed between musical numbers, or sometimes embedded within them, these sketchy vignettes have little of the humor and nuance that defined The Mountaintop. This is old-school bio-drama, low on the self-referential irony common to contemporary musicals and coy on potentially thorny issues like race or sex. Much like Turner herself, Tina is a conservative crowd-pleaser at heart, squarely pitched at the populist mainstream.
But the music is paramount, of course, making dramatic depth a secondary concern. Under musical director Tom Kelly and arranger Nicholas Skilbeck, the songs are dynamically staged and generally excellent, powering the plot without being pressed too awkwardly into narrative duty. Rousing versions of "Nutbush City Limits" and "Proud Mary" bookend the story. A scene which revisits the recording of "River Deep, Mountain High" with perfectionist control freak Phil Spector (Tom Godwin) also makes good dramatic use of Turner reworking her vocal countless times, ramping up the song into a volcanic crescendo. All those big-haired 1980s power ballads, once a guilty pleasure, prove well-suited to the high-gloss camp and sexless raunch of rock opera.
A discreetly high-tech spectacle, Lloyd’s eye-pleasing production unfolds with the slick sophistication of a modern rock concert. Set designer Mark Thompson, another Mamma Mia! veteran, keeps the shape-shifting stage mobile and colorful. Projection designer Jeff Sugg also plays a key role, conjuring up cityscapes using artfully blurred vistas on a billboard-sized video screen, and blitzing several musical numbers with vividly psychedelic visuals that studiously avoid stale retro cliché. The glitzy costumes, also by Thompson, are high-end drag-queen fabulous.
Tina transcends its more stilted, corny elements during the grand finale. The fourth wall drops away and the production becomes a full-blooded rock show, with band and cast onstage. It’s a roof-raising, life-affirming climax that swept the crowd to its feet on press night. Pure button-pushing melodrama, maybe. But irresistibly uplifting entertainment, too.
Venue: Aldwych Theatre, London
Cast: Adrienne Warren, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Madeline Appah, Lorna Gayle, Aisha Jawando, Tom Godwin, Ryan O’Donnell, Gerard McCarthy, Claudia Elie
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Book: Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar, Kees Prins
Set and costume designer: Mark Thompson
Lighting designer: Bruno Poet
Sound designer: Nevin Steinberg
Projection designer: Jeff Sugg
Fight director: Kate Waters
Choreographer: Anthony Van Laast
Musical supervisor and arranger: Nicholas Skilbeck
Musical director: Tom Kelly
Presented by Stage Entertainment, Joop Van Den Ende, Tali Pelman, Tina Turner, Erwin Bach