Ms. Tina Turner is a giant of the music business. Fact.
She lived a daily drama, unique to the poor African American experience, until early middle age, when she finally gained complete emotional and professional control of her life. After finding the courage to go solo after a hugely successful professional collaboration with Ike Turner, to pursue the ultimate release of her multi-platinum-selling ten-track, 5th solo album, Private Dancer, in 1984.
Since the unprecedented seven singles releases out of 10 total (Let’s Stay Together, Help!, What’s Love Got to Do With It?, Better Be Good to Me, Private Dancer, I Can’t Stand the Rain and Show Some Respect), earning in excess of 20 million album sales alone, Ms. Turner has led a feted life, breaking records in music and celebrity, and basking in a love that appears river deep, mountain high.
It’s no wonder that the West End’s newest musical spectacle, Tina: The Tina Turner Musical (TTTTM), is the third big-budget attempt to do justice to that life. It is preceded by the equally over-arching, critically acclaimed musical Soul Sister (2013, Hackney Empire, which began on her arrival in St. Louis); and the film What’s Love Got To Do With It? (1993), based on her 1986 autobiography I, Tina, which earned Oscar nominations for its leads.
TBB attended the World Premiere of TTTTM, sitting immediately in front of the Living Legend herself, supporting her along with Ruby Turner, Jimmy Akingbola, Kellie Shirley, Sir Lenny Henry, Trevor Nelson and Sir Rod Stewart.
Olivier-award-winning fellow Tennessee native Katori Hall (The Mountaintop, 2010) and the curiously lesser advertised writers Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins firmly establish the early influences that shaped the kind of persona which could take the Mississippi Delta mud and cotton, mid-20th century African American and gender oppression, the Name imposed upon her, and forge it all to her own liking. The TTTTM book parallels the setting of 1993’s What’s Love, but adds some lesser known details missing from the film, fudges some facts and extends the timeline a little. An indisputably talented and committed cast do well within its limitations.
Beginning in a tiny Nutbush church, heavy-handed sharecropper Richard Bullock (Natey Jones) preaches to a small congregation, including his ambitious wife Zelma (Madeline Appiah) and two daughters – older Alline (Athea Andi) and Anna Mae (the amazing Claudia Elie). At around 7 years old, Anna Mae shows an intense connection to both the words and music of hymns and songs, which surprises and intimidates most, but in which she finds a joy that more than off-sets the physical and emotional stress of her poor, broken family. She also finds important empathy in her beloved Gran Georganna, GG (Lorna Gayle).
At 17, after making her way to St. Louis to join her mother and sister (Aisha Jawando), Anna Mae (Adrienne Warren) timidly takes the stage at Club Manhattan, headlined by local ladies man and former talent scout for the Modern and RPM record labels, Izear “Ike” Turner (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) and his band, the Kings of Rhythm. Anna’s talent inspires Ike to pursue her for his next big break into mainstream chart success.
In Ike’s hands, Anna Mae’s unique voice and phrasing become invaluable to the band’s achievements. He christens her Tina Turner for the stage. and whilst in awe of Ike, she pursues a secret romance with saxophonist Raymond Hill (also Natey Jones) until eventually, Ike charms her away. What follows are 20 abuse-filled years of award-winning chart and live-performance success before Ike’s legal and professional hold is broken. Private Dancer released 8 years later is an achievement which beats ageism, the black woman stereotype and which finally lays to rest the spectre of the success of Ike and Tina. Having always expressed a lifelong desire to sing Rock ‘n’ Roll, Tina Turner managed to entrance the world and earn the title, Queen of Rock. This story, quite rightly, ends with cheers and a rapturous, standing ovation
Turner herself said she didn’t want a Disney version of her life this time around, and this has been honoured. TTTTM works well in some areas, but, the production burns through Turner’s life at such a pace that the nuance of the central relationship between herself and Ike feels neglected. The violence in the first half, is expertly choreographed by fight director Kate Waters, but with not enough story and, at times character, the dialogue and drama sometimes fall a little flat. The pace may also explain why your favourite Turner classic is cut short.
Though the Nutbush set is truly evocative, Mark Thompson’s set design generally presents as much actual pressing darkness over each backdrop as there is allegorical darkness to the drama, even as Turner is on the ascent. With energy as the hallmark of both the Revue and her solo performances, the actors can’t really afford to expend more energy to grapple with it. Director, Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia, 2008, 1999 stage), making up the all-female production team, doesn’t seem able to compensate.
Jones as Richard/Raymond, Appiah as Zelma and Brown as young Anna manage particularly well with their limited stage time. Appiah manages to generate more empathy for Zelma than the fantastic Jenifer Lewis did on-screen in 1993. But, Lloyd’s direction is most felt with Turner herself. Tony-nominated Adrienne Warren (Shuffle Along, Broadway, 2016) is on stage almost constantly, so this is a hugely demanding physical undertaking for her, which she more than rises to. Turner worked with choreographer Anthony Van Last to ensure that the routines were executed perfectly, at one point dancing with him for 2 hours, and it shows.
Warren shines brightest and most embodies Turner during the high energy performance numbers. Her artistic accomplishment is obvious, as her impressive voice and range seem almost augmented by their non-stop energy and, at times, she appears to channel the molten rasp and power of Turner’s head voice. What may work for some and not for others (and which could be down to musical direction), is the hint of impersonation in the lower registers, such as her cat-like purr, and of the pure musical theatre in the slurred transitions, rather than the cut glass of Turner’s.
Tina Turner is famous for her grit and steel being beautifully off-set by silk and velvet. Lloyd’s Turner is constantly spirited – yes, to drive Turner’s personal ambition. But, she also constantly displays the kind of mettle which, according to Turner’s apparent journey, took years to develop. We don’t get to see much of the young, inexperienced girl who could have fallen prey to and stayed with, Ike.
What does work is the integrity and strong sense of family that Warren is able to convey and, of course, her “leonine mane-shaking,” “stiletto-heeled strutting, “legs-astride” powerhouse performance. You won’t be able to remove your gaze when Warren is in full flow. There’s no doubt she will really make this Tina her own.
As possibly the biggest reveal of the production, critically acclaimed dramatic actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith sings his blues drawl with the same deep and dirty, gritty, rasp as Ja Rule or DMX, with a genuine handle on his lead electric guitar. Whilst the humiliations and injustices he suffered are mentioned, Holdbrook-Smith manages to inject Ike with enough human frailty and pressure of the times as to make some of his actions understandable, though not excusable. Beyond that, Lloyd’s Ike remains more or less the enigmatic character he’s always been.
Turner famously walked away from the act and the marriage with only her name. But, with no apparent access obstacles to the Revue’s material, 23 songs from her best-selling back catalogue are used as both straight studio/concert performance pieces and to progress the narrative. Much of the Revue’s output and Turner’s four pre-Private Dancer solo albums – a truly enormous portfolio – is again ignored. This mostly works, with song choices enhancing the low-key, oppressive tone of the first half and heightening the dynamism of the second. Nutbush City Limits (1973) as Richard’s opening sermon, and Don’t Turn Around (B-side to Typical Male, Break Every Rule, 1986) as an Anna Mae/GG duet is particularly clever. Whilst A Fool in Love and River Deep, Mountain High (1966), Proud Mary (1971), I Can’t Stand the Rain and What’s Love Got To Do With It? (Private Dancer, 1984) and, of course, Turner’s cover of Bonnie Tyler’s (Simply) The Best (Foreign Affair, 1989) provide exactly what you want from a jukebox musical.
Tina Turner is an example of how to be powerful, fearless, and fabulous when you find yourself ahead of your time and wanting to achieve things that society, and even family, don’t want you to. She was, and remains, a magnificent example of black womanhood – a warrior presence, despite Western ideas of femininity and beauty historically consigning us to the bottom of the desirability pile.
Her story is also an important part of African Diasporan social history. So, even if you are not a fan of the musical theatre genre, go see this show for all of these reasons. If you are a fan, its a no-brainer! TTTTM has a fantastic, bonafide Broadway star headlining, supported by an array of brilliant black British talent, filled with songs that are sure to have impacted the soundtrack of your life, or someone you know.
Tina: The Tina Turner Musical is playing at the Aldwych Theatre, 49 Aldwych, London, WC2B 4DF, already extended until 16th February 2019.
Read TBB’s interview with Kobna Holdbrook-Smith [here].