New York City Theater
Adrienne Warren. Remember the name. As Tina Turner in the new jukebox/biographical musical, “Tina,” she expels enough energy to light the nation’s grid. As rock star Tina Turner, Warren sings to the rafters, dances with pounding rhythm, acts with more subtlety than the script allows and looks great thrusting arms and legs to the heavens. It’s a star-making performance, surrounded by a formulaic, unmoving show.
Tina, a child prodigy musically, parlayed that tremendous voice into a fiery public career. Starting as Young Anna-Mae (embodied by a limitless talent named Skye Dakota Turner -- no relation), Tina Turner, as she’s later named, parlays religious soul music into tangible emotions.
The odds are against her, what with an indifferent mother, Zelma (Dawnn Lewis), an abusive husband, Ike Turner (Daniel J. Watts) and racial prejudice. The stage is set for high drama, but we get more high energy, with a plethora of songs (“Proud Mary,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “River Deep – Mountain High,” “Disco Inferno,” plus 20-odd others), played by a terrific orchestra.
Actually, “Disco Inferno” is, except for a rousing post-curtain call concert, a musical highlight, thanks to choreographer Anthony Van Laast and a high-stepping Ensemble. The dramatic highlight is not Ike’s hard-to-watch physical abuse (add drugs and adultery) nor Zelma’s hospital death scene, but a true-to-life moment where, alone and destitute, Tina begs a roadside hotel clerk to give her a room, for which she can pay only 36 cents. A scene with religious connotations (hospitality is a biblical command), it connects the audience to the character’s journey from penurious depth to triumphant height.
Tina was sui generis. That mane-like hair suggests a fierce lioness. And fierce she was, animalistic, primitive, the sounds emerging as if from some wild animal. Under Phyllida Lloyd’s swift direction, Warren underplays the personal ferocity, saving it for her musical performances. It’s a portrait of an artist who performs as if she hasn’t a clue as to where all that brilliance comes from.
The show, with a book by Katori Hall, with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins, whooshes through the entertainer’s highlights without anchoring her life. But the acting is idiosyncratic: Watts lets Ike’s bullying speak for his character, while Lewis is sharp as Zelma, Myra Lucretia Taylor is warm as Granny, Leandra Ellis-Gaston is a supportive sister and, of course, young Turner is a distinct find as Young Anna-Mae.
“Tina” dares an audience to enter a world where nothing came easy, a world of not only where you started but where, despite setbacks, you finished.
--David A. Rosenberg
Nov, 25, 2019