Theatre Review | 'Tina: The Tina Turner Musical' 

click to enlarge Ari Groover as 'Tina Turner.'

MATTHEW MU.

Ari Groover as 'Tina Turner.'

Broadway is a business, and shows based on sources that are already household names are considered safe bets. The Rochester Broadway Theatre League hosted two musicals based on the lives of legendary artists this year: “Ain’t Too Proud: The Story of the Temptations” and now, to close out their 2023-24 Broadway season, the national tour of “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” playing through June 9.

The show, directed by Phyllida Lloyd (who also directed the “Mamma Mia!” movie), opens with a Buddhist chant and praise for Jesus. Lights flash into the audience while the stage reveals a silhouette of the rock and roll icon, with her recognizable '80s mullet, about to climb the steps of a concert stage. Two figures representing the spiritual influences in Tina’s life appear to ground her: a woman chanting “nam myoho renge kyo” and a preacher praising Jesus. The latter gives way to a flashback of a young girl named Anna-Mae (played by Brianna Cameron at the opening Tuesday performance, a firecracker of a child actor who captured the energy and power of a burgeoning star) singing and dancing uninhibited at church while her mother Zelma (a convincing Roz White) chastises her.

A few years later, teenage Anna-Mae visits her sister Alline (a carefree, fun Karen Burthwright) in St. Louis and performs at a juke joint, where she’s discovered by Ike Turner (a charismatic and volatile Deon Releford-Lee). He shows up at her door the next day and, like a scene from a fairy tale, chooses her to be his queen of rock and roll and go on tour with him. The fairy tale turns nightmare as Ike becomes controlling, insisting Anna-Mae change her name to Tina, firing her romantic interest Raymond (a smoothly likable Gerald M. Williams), and demanding an engagement in a particularly villainous marriage proposal. As her career advances, she faces more challenges including racial discrimination, misogynoir, financial abuse, and ageism.

The challenge of any jukebox musical is to contrive new scenarios and characters that believably lead into performances of pre-existing music. Biographical jukeboxes add the restraint of using those songs to compress the story of a singer’s life and career in under three hours. This often results in shows that are more rock concert than satisfying narrative, as is the case with “Tina.”

The show spans close to three decades, so by necessity can only capture snapshots of biographical information. The book by Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins jumps from conflict to conflict with little room for narrative buildup. The first scene with spoken dialogue sums up a childhood of turmoil with an abrupt fist fight between Anna-Mae’s parents and the mom walking out. Raymond persuades Anna-Mae not to leave him with “Let’s Stay Together” only a moment after we find out that they are, in fact, together. Later in the show, figures are more distinguishable by their accents than their personalities — the manager who loves Tina professionally is Australian (Dylan Wallach) and his co-worker who loves Tina romantically is German (John Battagliese).

Moments in Tina’s life, from domestic abuse to racism on the road, are interspersed with performances of her hit songs. The emotional tension lies in the contrast between the strife in Tina’s life (according to this show, she was often surrounded by people who like to throw things — chairs, cymbals, suitcases) and high energy performances of her hits, like “River Deep – Mountain High” and “Proud Mary.” The show vibes on sensory overload: bright lights (designed by Bruno Poet) and loud music culminating in an explosive rock concert for two additional post-bow songs. The vocals are strong, although the ensemble's singing is sometimes drowned out by the band.

The role of Tina is so demanding, soloing in all but two of the musical numbers, that two actresses (Ari Groover and Zurin Villanueva) alternate playing her on the tour. Groover’s Tina is earnest and people-pleasing, easy to root for even before she reveals her powerful voice. Groover excels in stage presence and stamina, though it’s hard to make out the words she’s singing (or, during the rock portion, shouting). Since the lyrics don’t contribute much to the overall story, it’s easy to follow along without catching the words.

The silent star of the show is the background projections (designed by Jeff Sugg). At some times, they set the scenes with abstract suggestions of locations such as an open field, a moving car or a night sky. At others, they reflect Tina’s emotional state, such as the psychedelic swirls when Tina overdoses on medication. And often, they show moving colorful shapes, like an extravagant computer screensaver, that complement the rock numbers. These swirling designs add more visual interest than the ensemble, whose members appear onstage with little to do but watch Tina sing and remind audiences this is a musical.

Most audiences are probably more drawn in by the allure of Tina Turner than by the “musical theater” part, and the show delivers on its promise there. Fans wanting a raucous concert honoring Tina get the spectacle of a rock and roll concert, contextualized with a glimpse of the hardships that faced Anna-Mae.

Katherine Varga is a contributor to CITY.
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