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Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll Tina Turner turns eighty today, a major milestone in a complicated, difficult life that is currently under the microscope on Broadway in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, continuing through next September at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Adrienne Warren is explosive in the title role, giving a dazzling performance as Tina transforms herself from little Anna Mae Bullock (Skye Dakota Turner) singing in church to joining Ike Turner’s (Daniel J. Watts) band to ultimately carving out a memorable second-half-of-life career after being physically and psychologically abused and supposedly being washed up at the age of forty. Presented in “association with Tina Turner,” it’s an inspiring rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches story that is a step above the recent spate of mediocre (or worse) biographical jukebox musicals that includes Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, The Cher Show, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and Aint Too Proud to Beg: The Life and Times of the Temptations.
The book is by rising African American playwright Katori Hall (Our Lady of Kibeho, Hurt Village) with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins (Hij Gelooft in Mij), and the show is directed by Phyllida Lloyd, who has helmed Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady as well as a well-received all-female Shakespeare trilogy. Tina is paced like a concert, with a strong, fast beginning, some slower moments in the middle, and a grand finale. Not all of it works, particularly as the second act drips into Hallmark territory as Tina’s mother, Zelma (Dawnn Lewis), gets sick. Another problem is that instead of the songs appearing more or less in chronological order as the story unfolds, they are squeezed into scenes because of their content, not when they were recorded, so, for example, her 1983 version of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” is followed, in succession, by 1984’s “Better Be Good to Me,” 1970’s “I Want to Take You Higher,” 1966’s “River Deep — Mountain High,” 1989’s “Be Tender with Me, Baby,” 1971’s “Proud Mary,” and 1993’s “I Don’t Wanna Fight No More.” Tina didn’t write any of these songs, so they don’t relate to her state of mind at the time, and, even more important, the narrative is by then only up to the early 1980s, several years before she meets manager Roger Davies (Charlie Franklin) and starts her comeback with some of the very tunes we’ve now already heard. It might be a great concert setlist but it muddies the waters of a chronological tale. And don’t even get me started on the prominence of “We Don’t Need Another Hero”; did anyone listen to the end of the chorus and wonder where the line “All we want is life beyond Thunderdome” fits into Tina’s life (particularly without mentioning the Mad Max film it’s from)?
That said, Mark Thompson’s sets and costumes shine, Anthony van Laast’s choreography glints and glimmers, and Nicholas Skilbeck’s arrangements and Ethan Popp’s orchestrations, performed by an eleven-piece rock band, do justice to the originals. In addition to Warren’s star turn as Tina — prepare to be awed at how she makes her way up and down the staircase in heels during the encores — Myra Lucretia Taylor is heartwarming as Tina’s grandmother, Gran Georgeanna; Holli’ Conway, Kayla Davion, Destinee Rea, and Mars Rucker have fun as the Ikettes; Dakota Turner reveals quite a strong voice as the young Anna Mae; and Watts does not make Ike pure evil, though you still might consider hissing at him at the curtain call. But the show is really all about Warren (Shuffle Along, Bring It On: The Musical), who commands the stage with a magnetic presence and instantly wins over the audience with her unceasing energy, flashy movement, and magical voice, just like the woman she is portraying has done for decades. Happy birthday, Tina!