This review is from 2018. Check the show’s official website for current cast.
Where ‘Tina’ undoubtedly succeeds is in the casting of its lead. Broadway performer Adrienne Warren is virtually unknown over here, but it’s instantly apparent why she was tapped up for this. She doesn’t so much imitate Turner as channel her: her technically dazzling but achingly world-weary gale of a voice feels like it should be coming out of a woman decades, if not centuries, older. And while Warren doesn’t really look anything like Turner, she perfectly captures that leggy, rangy, in-charge physicality. From a musical standpoint, she virtually carries the show, singing nigh-on every song and even giving us an encore at the end.
Almost as good is heavyweight Brit actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, who brings a demonic charisma to the role of Ike Turner. Tina’s abusive bandleader and husband is monstrous in his self-pitying, manipulative rage, but it’s not hard to see the appeal of his raw wit and powerful sense of certainty. It is a deadly serious performance.
But the talented creative team of director Lloyd and writer Katori Hall never really crack the correct way to use their leads.
At its absolute best, the first half of ‘Tina’ conveys the sickening lurch of the ’60s spinning out of control, all twitchy druggy dancing and wailed vocals under Jeff Sugg’s queasily churning projections. Needless to say, this doesn’t necessarily sit that well with the idea of having a jolly good singalong to Tina’s hits. Hall’s book is not exactly gratuitously grim, and certainly avoids painting its subject as a helpless victim. We know she’s strong. But there’s no getting away from the fact that ‘Tina’ contains upsetting scenes of spousal violence, not to mention a fair amount of swearing and frequent use of the N-word. It certainly feels complicated telling this story via the medium of showstopping musical numbers, and it’s difficult to exactly enjoy it, even though we’re clearly being invited to do so.
The second, post-Ike half is less problematic and essentially details Tina’s efforts to drag herself out of her wilderness years and become a bona-fide solo superstar. It has a much less compelling story than the first half, though, and there’s perhaps something a liiiiittle awkward about the way in which the story is pushed along by a couple of white saviour figures (a record label wonk and an affable German boyfriend) who descend from the gods to drag Tina out of the doldrums.
Lloyd directs fluidly and at a pace, but there is, also, a weird feeling of it being clogged with ephemera. Do we need interludes about Tina’s Buddhism? A load of stuff on her not-very-interesting new boyf? A studio scene featuring Heaven 17? Her cover of Iggy Pop’s ‘Tonight’? I can’t help but wonder if one price of the real Turner’s involvement in the show was incorporating elements of her life that feel more important to her than us.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s an entertaining night, brilliantly performed. By the time Warren busts out ‘The Best’ and reprises of ‘Nutbush City Limits’ and ‘Proud Mary’ for the mini-concert at the end, the roof is suitably blown off.
But the inevitable closing euphoria doesn’t feel like it vindicates the queasy journey. Turner was, apparently, not greatly in favour of the project but decided to lend her support on the grounds that it was going to happen anyway. I’d say her ambivalence was justified.