The thrilling final minutes of “Tina” are all that a rock concert should be, and the main reason to see this jukebox biomusical about one of the world’s most electric performers, portrayed by Adrienne Warren in a star-making role. It may not be reason enough, though, especially for those of us who recall the 1993 movie, “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” which covers the same remarkable life of the outsized talent born Annie Mae Bullock to a sharecropping family in Nutbush, Tennessee.
Some of the most memorable moments of that life are presented on stage at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne as they were in the movie, based on her first autobiography, “I, Tina” — her irrepressible singing in church as a child; her sudden discovery as a teenager in a club in St. Louis by r&b and rock pioneer Ike Turner; his horrific abuse of her; the moment she breaks away by rushing to a hotel, bloodied and broke, promising the hotel clerk she would pay him back if he would only give her a room; her triumphant return as a solo artist. I wore out my DVD replaying some of those moments in the movie, particularly the scene where she shocks the unaware crowd (including her sister) in that club in St. Louis with her down and dirty, dynamic singing. (which, for the record, was Tina Turner’s actual voice, dubbed while Angela Bassett lip-synched.) Yet, most of those moments barely register in “Tina.” The non-musical book scenes feel rushed and nearly perfunctory, but even the important musical moments feel unfocused, as if we only have time to get the outline. After all, there are two dozen hits to get through.
Book writer Katori Hall demonstrated her ability to create moments that linger in her 2011 Broadway debut play “The Mountaintop,” about Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night alive, and in her Off-Broadway “Our Lady of Kibeho,” which links a religious miracle to the Rwandan genocide. But Hall faced a similar challenge to another accomplished playwright and first-time Broadway musical librettist, Dominique Morisseau, the book writer for “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” playing across the street from “Tina.” Like Morisseau, Hall makes an effort to place Tina Turner’s story into the context of the times, with glimpses into the era’s (and the music industry’s) sexism and racism.
In both shows, the playwrights can go only so far, given what has long struck me as the limitations of the subgenre. Though increasingly popular among producers, jukebox biomusicals rarely seem able to do full justice either to their subject or to the art of theater. With mandates to be efficient delivery systems for as many hits as possible, the shows present these songs largely in two ways. They are songs that the characters are performing for an audience or in rehearsal or at an audition, which puts an undue emphasis on the ins and outs and ups and downs of the music industry; the thus-obligatory scenes of Tina discussing her career with record executives and studio staff tend toward the deadly. Worse are the songs that are shoehorned into the plot, because the lyrics almost fit – except that they often don’t: At the top of Act II, after she’s split from Ike, she is forced to work as a maid. That’s when she sings “Private Dancer,” which is about a prostitute, “a dancer for money/I’ll do what you want me to do.” A maid is not a prostitute. The feelings might be similar, but that’s not enough. At least not for me; that’s apparently not the lesson learned by “Tina” director Phyllida Lloyd, who helmed the first and longest-running jukebox musical, “Mamma Mia!”
The saving grace of a show like “Tina” is their function as showcases and training grounds for some terrific performers. The two dozen cast members of “Tina” are all pros, with outstanding performances by Daniel J. Watts, nine-time Broadway veteran, in the nearly thankless role as the exciting, oleaginous Ike, and Skye Dakota Turner as the young ebullient Anna Mae. But of course “Tina” belongs to the show’s Tina, a performance of extraordinary stamina. At the end, dressed in trademark tight red leather mini-dress, highest of heels and tallest of wigs, ascending a staircase of flashing lights backed by a raucous band each in his own Hollywood Square, Adrienne Warner delivers Tina Turner’s greatest hits – Nutbush City Limits, Proud Mary ( “Rollin’, rollin’ rollin’ on the river…”) – and we all rise as one, ecstatic, and swoon.. I’m not sure what it says – but it says something – that this greatest moment in the musical’s nearly three hours occurs after the curtain call.
Click on any photographs by Manuel Harlen to see them enlarged.
Tina the Tina Turner Musical
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd and written by Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins, choreography by Anthony van Laast, set and costume designs by Mark Thompson, musical supervision, additional music and arrangements by Nicholas Skilbeck, lighting by Bruno Poet, sound by Nevin Steinberg, projection design by Jeff Sugg, orchestrations by Ethan Popp. Casting by Telsey + Company.
Cast: Adrienne Warren as Tina Turner, Daniel J. Watts as Ike Turner, Dawnn Lewis, Nkeki Obi-Melekwe, Myra Lucretia Taylor and Steven Booth, Nick Rashad Burroughs, Gerald Caesar, Holli’ Conway, Kayla Davion, Leandra Ellis-Gaston, Charlie Franklin, Judith Franklin, Matthew Griffin, Sheldon Henry, David Jennings, Ross Lekites, Robert Lenzi, Gloria Manning, Rob Marnell, Mehret Marsh, Jhardon DiShon Milton, Destinee Rea, Mars Rucker, Jessica Rush, Justin Schuman, Alyssa Shorte, Carla Stewart, Jayden Theophile, Skye Dakota Turner, Antonio Watson and Katie Webber
Ticket prices at box office: $79 – $169. Lottery: $45
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission.