Tina Turner is a superstar, but there is another person audiences will be excitedly discussing as they leave the Broadway theater after Tina, the new Turner jukebox bio-musical: Adrienne Warren.
Warren — not yet a huge name but an accomplished actor who earned a Tony nom for 2016’s Shuffle Along — is absolutely stunning in the titular role. Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, Warren is captivating, bringing the audience along as she goes through the incredible highs and horrifying lows of Turner’s life, from poverty to the complexities of her abusive relationship with Ike Turner to her London comeback and tour domination. Warren is doing both an incredible imitation of Tina (those dance moves! that big voice!) as well as making it her own, forging an intense connection with the audience that makes you want to stand up and shake a tailfeather (and, to be clear, many do at certain big moments of the show).
It’s just too bad that the show, written by Katori Hall and directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!), doesn’t live up to her performance.
The major issue in the book is that in attempting to go broad and crowd-pleasing, all nuance is lost. That’s pretty typical for jukebox musicals, of course, and sometimes it doesn’t really even matter. But here, the lack of depth is noticeable; it’s one thing to just give some topline notes about your years of struggle as a teen or a long-forgotten ex. It’s quite another when the thing we’re merely getting snippets of is foundation-altering stuff like drug addiction or domestic violence.
Presumably the creative team are assuming people are well-versed in Tina’s story by this point, so why dwell on all the low stuff? After all, there was both her bestselling memoir I, Tina as well as the popular film What’s Love Got To Do With It. So we’re in well-trodden territory.
But by declining to spend any real amount of time on any one situation, Tina makes it hard to stay invested in the story, no matter how much you like the tunes. We go from a disturbing scene of Ike hitting her, to her announcing she’s pregnant with a second child, to her sharing they’ve been married for over a decade. It’s jarring.
It can also be a bit confusing. One assumes it would have probably been interesting to learn more about her journey from singing in a Baptist church as a child to identifying as a Buddhist adult. But the only reason we know that switch happened at all is a chant, told to her by a backup singer and repeated a few times throughout the show, that seems to have a calming, centering presence on Tina. Audiences are left to fill in the blanks.
The major issue in the story is that in attempting to go broad and crowd-pleasing, all nuance is lost.
As a result of the dominance of pop-by storytelling, supporting turns aren’t given much to work with and are mostly playing one adjective or forced to deliver some quick exposition. Roger (Charlie Franklin) is a Goofy! record producer who believes in her. Another music manager (Ross Lekites) who appears out of the blue (and eventually becomes husband No. 2) is Kind! Her mother (Dawnn Lewis) is Complicated! Ike (Daniel J. Watts) is Bad! Tina’s sister shows up as a foil in one early scene, then is mostly sidelined.
The songs are iconic, of course — but here, the arrangements seem particularly shoehorned in. Her music doesn’t easily graft onto her life story (sort of necessary for these jukebox bio-musicals to work), so a significant amount of the numbers take place in scenes of “Tina singing in a recording studio” or “Tina performing onstage” as opposed to “Tina letting out her emotions during intense crossroad moments of her life.”
All that said, “Tina performing onstage” sure is fun to watch. Set and costume designer Mark Thompson does a fabulous job recreating Turner’s stage looks, and it’s those big performance scenes where Warren is able to cut loose that Tina most comes alive. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the production makes the decision to conclude the show post-curtain call with a quick medley of hits, and the whole thing turns into a concert, with Warren leading the high energy ensemble.
In that moment, the show — and Warren — are simply the best.