The following review is based on the Wednesday, June 14th performance.
Since debuting in London five years ago, Tina – The Tina Turner Musical has finally made its Los Angeles premiere at the Pantages Theatre where it will run through Sunday, July 9th. However, it is not without some lingering sadness given the American-Swiss singer’s unfortunate passing only three weeks ago as of this writing, which is noted with a tastefully done in-memoriam graphic on the cover of the show’s Playbill. By the time opening night concluded, though, much of the heartache gave way to exultation, buoyed by spectacular performances and perhaps the most exhilarating encore ever, which further honored the “Queen of Rock and Roll,” Tina Turner.
Jukebox musicals, while they are usually chock-full of fun due to the recognizability of their songs, can sometimes use this known fact as a crutch to the detriment of the story being told. But there’s no doubt that Tina Turner, whose birth/real name was Anna-Mae Bullock, not only lived a tremendous life, but one that has been splendidly chronicled by book writers Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar, and Kees Prins. Turner’s journey was tailor-made for the stage because its retelling is not only compelling in its ups and downs but inspires as an example of unequaled perseverance in the face of countless obstacles; in other words, there’s a real substance here that doesn’t just complement, but elevates, Turner’s 20-plus songs.
With beginnings as a child in a Nutbush, Tennessee church choir, to being essentially abandoned by parents Richard (Kristopher Stanley Ward) and Zelma (Roz White) before being raised by her Gran Georgeanna (Carla R. Stewart), Tina’s (Naomi Rodgers/Zurin Villanueva) path forever changes as a 17-year-old when she follows through on encouragement to professionally pursue music. In a St. Louis nightclub, Tina meets Ike Turner (Roderick Lawrence), along with his Kings of Rhythm group and the Ikettes, who gives Bullock her stage name and asks her to marry him despite his character issues and Tina being in an affair with band saxophonist Raymond (Gerard M. Williams). Although Tina’s renown grows, and she enjoys being a mother to two sons, her relationship with the controlling Ike becomes more abusive. As these struggles come to a head, Tina, who has everything stripped away from her, is confronted with the ultimate challenge of having to reclimb the mountain of stardom as a 40-year-old Black woman who is perceived to be past her prime. All in all, through Tina’s never-say-die mettle, audiences learn how principled of a fighter she was to win on her own terms in an industry that oftentimes tended to be racist.
As substantive as the narrative is, this musical appropriately resembles a concert at times, amplified figuratively and literally by the mostly hidden Tina Turner Band onstage, led by music director/conductor Anne Shuttlesworth. Lighting designer Bruno Poet augments the goosebumps-on-your-arm thrills by emphasizing the performers, and sometimes the audience (e.g., spotlighting sections of the crowd in “She Made My Blood Run Cold” and using luminescent disco balls during “Disco Inferno”), which naturally makes Tina feel like an event.
The company impressively acts and looks the part, too, thanks to Anthony Van Laast’s electrifying choreography (which even takes the chicken-wing dance to another level) and a magnificent, era-specific wig, hair, and makeup design by Campbell Young Associates. Mark Thompson, who crafted the costumes, deserves plaudits for similar reasons but where Thompson really shines is with his catch-all set, which doubles, triples, and quadruples as wide-ranging biographical backdrops, and evokes the pageantry of a stadium-sized presentation, heavily aided by Jeff Sugg’s blended-in projections. One of the best scenic transitions occurs when Tina walks up a series of steps leading to a projected starry sea of fans, which magically transforms into a ritzy stage with a multitude of musicians flanking it. And certainly not to be omitted is director Phyllida Lloyd who manages the sundry parts on stage impeccably, ensuring seamless transitions and moments that never wear out their welcome even after two hours and forty-five minutes.
Rodgers, who shares the title role with Villanueva, portrayed Tina on opening night in one of the most consistently astonishing musical performances ever seen on any stage. To say that Rodgers does a simple Tina Turner impression would be an insult, and to say she only channels the rock icon would be an understatement. Instead, Rodgers becomes a version of Tina that has an identity of her own and could conceivably exist in a parallel universe. From her purposeful manner of speech to her indefatigable movement and vocals — and capable of many higher gears — Rodgers makes the intensely demanding part look easy. The portrayal of the spiritually inclined Tina requires the lifeblood of the actor, who, in this case, navigates a strangulating emotional turmoil in numbers like the Act I-ender “I Don’t Wanna Fight No More” before later pivoting to fire-spitting hits, none more significant than Turner’s first No. 1, and career-reenergizer, in 1984’s Grammy Award-winning “What’s Love Got to Do with It.”
Young Anna-Mae is played by Ayvah Johnson, a superbly charismatic Louisiana native who sings with more verve than most professional adult singers. Tina’s elder sister Alline is depicted, as a youngster, by the talented Lillian Charles and then, as an adult, by the magnetic Parris Lewis who invokes an affection that the lesser-known sibling had for her superstar sister despite a wedge driven between the two by their internally dissonant mother, Zelma.
White’s Zelma is noteworthy for the abstractness of her part. There is an apprehension in Zelma that disguises itself as a standoffishness in relation to Tina, who only ever wanted her mother’s love. In Act II, there is a hospital scene with mother and daughter that is highlighted by White’s ability to strike several emotional chords. Furthermore, as Tina’s father, Richard the preacher, Ward dazzles by getting the musical off to a blistering start, although the domestically violent character is not one to be held in high esteem. The most significant guardian in Tina’s life is Gran Georgeanna who is emoted with a lovely warmth as a result of Stewart’s underrated turn. Rhonda, the notably Caucasian manager of Ike & Tina and then later just Tina, is also conveyed with a sisterly likability and protectiveness by Lael Van Keuren.
Physical and mental maltreatment lamentably follows Tina into adulthood with Lawrence’s Ike who helped launch Tina with the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. Starting off as a charmer with a wonderfully gritty voice in “Rocket 88/Matchbox,” the drug-addicted Ike methodically unravels to become more and more irredeemable with each unforgivable blow to Tina, which Lawrence paces to perfection as the production’s central adversarial figure. In contrast, the male antitheses to Ike are Raymond, realized by Williams who earns a raucous applause with his stellar, silky-smooth vocals in “Let’s Stay Together,” and Erwin Bach, a moral marketer from Germany who takes a romantic shine to Tina and is played with an inviting innocence by Max Falls.
Bach is representative of a critical period in the second half of Tina’s life, which was mired in debt and a relegation to the celebrity boneyard of Las Vegas (before it became fashionable for artists). Fortunately for Tina, in spite of being rebuffed by Capitol Records’ lily-livered executive, Carpenter (played with an effective amorality by Chris Stevens), Tina meets the cheery, 27-year-old Australian manager with a golden ear in Roger Davies whom she learns to trust. Zachary Freier-Harrison’s Roger brims with such panache, to go along with the jolliest Australian accent, that he’s riveting to watch as the individual who virtually becomes Tina’s professional lifeline. Leaving a relatedly kindred impression as Phil Spector, but especially producer Terry Britten, is Geoffrey Kidwell who garners laughs aplenty in his misguided vocal demonstration of “What’s Love Got to Do with It.”
Additionally, among the first-rate cast are Andre Hinds and Antonio Beverly as Tina’s sons Craig and Ronnie; Aliyah Caldwell, Reyna Guerra, and Takia Hopson (with Parris Lewis) as the ceaselessly energetic Ikettes; and an overall ensemble who furnish “Proud Mary,” “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” and “(Simply) the Best,” among other crowd-pleasers, with extra pizzazz.
Ultimately, as opening night proved, the L.A. premiere of Tina – The Tina Turner Musical serves not as a solemn elegy in the wake of Turner’s recent death but rather as an impassioned celebration of her storied life and immortalized legacy. The production doesn’t sugarcoat and underscores the lowest of Turner’s abject lows, the highest of her glorious highs, and, in the midst of it all, spotlights a determined woman who, even when her outlook appeared forbidding, was resolute in knowing her worth.
For more information on Tina – The Tina Turner Musical at the Pantages Theatre, and to purchase tickets through July 9th, please visit broadwayinhollywood.com. Following Tina‘s Los Angeles residency, the musical will move to Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Hall where it will play from Tuesday, July 11th through Sunday, July 23rd. For additional details on this run, and to purchase tickets, go to scfta.org.