If you are a fan of the iconic singer Tina Turner, you will not want to miss “Tina: the Tina Turner Musical,” now playing on Broadway in New York City, which gloriously captures the life story of one of the greatest female singers in R&B and Rock & Roll.
Written by Katori Hall (with collaborators Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins), the dynamic show is about Turner’s difficult childhood; her discovery by bandleader and guitarist Ike Turner; their joint career; her years of physical abuse by Turner; and her attempt to re-brand herself after their divorce that left her basically penniless.
Bursting with sizzling music and dancing and enough energy to shake the rafters of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre where it is staged, this terrific show will leave you thrilled and thoroughly satiated.
It was ably directed by Phyllida Lloyd, the musical stars Adrienne Warren, who has garnered rave reviews as Turner, but during the Jan. 22 matinee that I attended, playing the role of the singer, was Nkeki Obi-Melekwe. As Turner, the actress brought down the house with her stellar and high-energy performance that calls for nearly non-stop moving for more than two and a half hours.
Still, the show is not without its flaws. With 24 songs packed in, Hall and her collaborators often convolute the accuracy of some dates and events for theatrical sake.
For instance, the show has Ike asking the singer to marry him in 1962, and she responds by singing “Better Be Good to Me.” The singer actually did not record the song until 1984, which was featured on her comeback album, “Private Dancer,” long after their 1978 divorce.
The play opens with Turner kneeling and chanting a Buddhist mantra before performing before 188,000 fans in Brazil, a record-breaking event that would garner Turner an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. Decked out in a sexy, red, leather mini-dress, and a spiky, blonde-streaked wig, Turner is visited by the spirit of her grandmother, Georgeanna, (Myra Lucretia Taylor) singing an ancestral chant and shaking a rattle.
The spirit of her Baptist minister father, Richard, (David Jennings) is beckoning people to come to the church altar. The moment captures the forces that forged Turner’s values and belief systems.
The scene shifts to a church in Nutbush, Tennessee, where Turner was born as Anna Mae Bullock, and we see a young Anna Mae (an amazing and charming Skye Dakota Turner) belting out a gospel-tinged mix of “Nutbush City Limits,” that soars above even the seasoned choir members.
We learn that Anna Mae’s mother, Zelma (a convincing Dawnn Lewis), sees the young girl’s gift as more of a loud nuisance and even more, Anna Mae as a child that she never wanted. When Richard comes to Anna Mae’s defense, the parents are pitted against each other. This leads to a fight where Richard physically abuses Zelma, and she leaves him and takes Anna Mae’s sister, Alline (on the day I attended played by Allysa Shorte) with her to St. Louis. Anna Mae is raised by her grandmother, who dotes on her, but who later convinces the now teen that she should move to St. Louis with her mother. There, the gifted singer can have a better chance of jump-starting a music career.
It is in a club in St. Louis that Anna Mae meets the musician, talent scout and record producer Ike Turner (played winningly by Daniel J. Watts) who leads a group called the King of Rhythms, and during a singing contest is impressed by Anna Mae’s vocal wizardry.
The star convinces Zelma to allow Anna Mae to tour with his group, and though Anna Mae initially sees Ike as a big brother, he convinces her that she should change her name to Tina Turner. The band is renamed the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, and aided by artist manager Rhonda (Jessica Rush), the group begins to rise in prominence.
Tina’s climb to stardom soon will cause the egotistical Ike to become paranoid that she will leave him. After they marry, the years of emotional torment and horrific physical abuse begins.
Along the way, the audience is treated to solid acting and a bevy of songs that include “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” “A Fool in Love,” Let’s Stay Together,” Better Be Good To Me,” “I Want to Take You Higher,” and “River Deep, Mountain High.”
A highlight is the hit, “Proud Mary,” where Obi-Melekwe almost channels the real-life Tina as toned legs kicking, muscular arms flailing, and hips shimmying at lightning speed, she alternates between commanding the mike, then jumping in line with the back-up Ikettes to blaze through a dance routine.
In between, Tina endures Ike’s open womanizing, cocaine binges, and total disregard for her physical and mental health, which often saw the singer going onstage to perform while exhausted and depleted.
An example is that after giving birth to a son by Ike, she is forced to perform only hours afterward while breastfeeding between pauses in the show. When Ike beats Tina’s oldest son, Craig, by sax player Raymond Hill (Gerald Caesar), who she had broken off her relationship to marry Ike, the singer overdosed on Valium, only to recover and to go onstage nearly in tears.
A pivotal moment in the relationship is when the two fight in a limo on their way to a performance, and Tina jumps out of the car and runs across lanes of speeding traffic, bloodied and beaten, and with only 16 cents in her pocket.
For the audience, it is a mesmerizing moment when the actress sings “I Don’t Wanna Fight No More” after a kind hotel manager gives her a key to a hotel room, and she decides to divorce Ike. Afterward, the singer who settles for only retaining her stage name in the divorce settlement struggles for more than five years before she can sign another recording contract.
Turner’s comeback is orchestrated by Roger Davies (Charlie Franklin), a young Australian artist manager who rebrands Turner’s image, finds new songs for her, and gives her a more up to date look. She even finds a new love in a record company executive Erwin Bach (Ross Lekites).
Obi-Melekwe brings down the house again with her rendering of Turner’s” What’s Love Got to Do With It,” and the show’s final song, “Simply the Best” had audience members standing, cheering and applauding. It is a triumph moment that will have you leaving the theater uplifted and inspired by the resilience of the human spirit.
The show is blessed by a creative team that includes Ethan Popp’s orchestrations and music coordinated by John Miller. Mark Thompson’s set and costumes realistically recreate the 70s and 80s, and Anthony Van Laast’s choreography will have you wanting truly to “Shake a Tailfeather.”
For those living in the DMV, one can conveniently take the Vamoose Bus from Lorton or Arlington or Bethesda and take a fun day trip to catch the subway or a taxi.