Broadway review by Adam Feldman
[Note: Nkeki Obi-Melekwe now plays the role of Tina Turner.]
The test of any star is the ability to rise above adversity, and Tina Turner has had more than her share. Abandoned by her parents as a child in rural Tennessee, she ascended to R&B fame in the 1960s at the side of Ike Turner, who exploited her and beat her before she climbed to even greater heights as a solo artist in the 1980s. The hugely talented Adrienne Warren, who plays her in the jukebox biomusical Tina, has different obstacles to overcome. Mediocrity surrounds her at every turn: an overstretched narrative that, in trying to span more than three decades of personal and artistic history, feels both rushed and overlong; a time line that is often confusing; dialogue that is rarely more than functional when it doesn’t sink into corn (“You know, Carpenter, you always said I had a good ear, but, you know, I have a good nose, too… for bullshit”). Director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) has staged the show with minimal subtlety—whenever Ike (Daniel J. Watts, in the ultimate thankless role) does cocaine, which is often, he waves a big bag of white powder in the air—and several of the supporting actors pitch their performances to the second balcony. (The Lunt-Fontanne doesn’t have a second balcony.)
These failings might not register as much in a lighthearted show, but they don’t serve the seriousness of Turner’s journey; this is a musical in which women and children are repeatedly brutalized onstage, and the heroine ends the first act with her face smeared in blood. Yet the production has two significant assets. First, there is Turner’s back catalog—including such hits as “Proud Mary,” “River Deep—Mountain High” and “What’s Love Got to Do With It”—which has significant nostalgia appeal and is mostly well integrated into the story (one mawkish deathbed reprise notwithstanding). And foremost, there is Warren, who delivers a performance of superhuman stamina and skill. She’s more tightly controlled than the real-life Turner; her movement is sharper, her vocals less raspy, and she barely seems to break a sweat. But she makes the part her own. During the mini-concert that ends the show, in Turner’s trademark punk-lioness hair—free from the burden of narrative, and backed by an onstage band—Warren struts with earned confidence. The audience by then is on its feet, and at hers. She has risen.
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre (Broadway). Book by Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins. Music and lyrics by various writers. Dir. Phyllida Lloyd. With Adrienne Warren. Running time: 2hrs 40mins. One intermission.