'Tina' teeters but its star shines: Turner bio-musical plays the Golden Gate

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday August 8, 2023
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Naomi Rodgers (center) in 'Tina: The Tina Turner Musical'<br> (photo: Matthew Murphy/MurphyMade)
Naomi Rodgers (center) in 'Tina: The Tina Turner Musical'
(photo: Matthew Murphy/MurphyMade)

The crowd roars. Backstage, crouching and red-meat-ready, Tina Turner prepares to tear it up, the iconic leonine wig of her 1980s solo stardom flaring in backlit silhouette.

We are in Rio de Janeiro, 1988, where the woman born Anna Mae Bullock is poised to perform for a record-breaking audience of over 180,000. And we are at the Golden Gate Theatre, where this moment still generates tingling electricity 35 years later, reenacted in "Tina: The Tina Turner Musical," the biographical musical now playing through August 27.

The pre-show buzz and ecstatic opening number from Turner's historic Rio performance are split into two scenes that bookend "Tina." The latter, which comes more than two hours after the first, is an exultant, arena-scale rendition of "The Best" during which you feel Turner's hard-earned triumph in every snarl and shimmy from Zurin Villanueva (who alternates performances of the title role with Naomi Rodgers).

In Rio and in San Francisco, the crowd is on its feet, shouting and singing along. They're getting exactly what they want: The ferocious perpetual motion and sandpaper banshee cries of Tina Turner in concert.

The audiences clamor for more. But while the night is young in Brazil, the show is over in San Francisco, where audiences have to settle for less.

The unbridled live energy that will send "Tina" audiences home trilling the producers' hoped for review —"Simply the best, better than all the rest"— is only intermittently part of the show.

All is well in that big finalé along with another handful of scenes in which Turner performs, records or rehearses familiar numbers, allowing Villanueva to play directly to the audience.

Deftly evoking the legend's spirit rather that attempting mimicry, Villanueva titrates just the right doses of Turner's signature Southern twang, guttural growl and legs-first physicality into her portrayal.

In a command performance of "River Deep, Mountain High," for an unctuous Phil Spector (Geoffrey Kidwell), a turbulent "Proud Mary" during the final Ike & Tina tour, an over-the-top 1978 Vegas version of the Trammps' "Disco Inferno" Villanueva sizzles and burns in top shelf Turner-style.

But the show's highlights can't quite compensate for its misfires.

Zurin Villanueva in 'Tina: The Tina Turner Musical'  

Contemporary folk hero
In this Beyoncé-besotted summer, the essential story of "Tina" serves to remind us what a true career renaissance looks like compared to an already on-top star's stylistic change-up. It's also a story that, as with most bio-musicals, is already familiar to nostalgia-stoked audiences.

Anyone who has read the bestselling memoir "I, Tina," seen the movie "What's Love Got to Do with It?" or watched Turner's harrowing interviews with Oprah, Mike Wallace and others knows that for 16 years, Turner, who died last year at 83, was savagely abused, physically and mentally, by her mentor/husband Ike Turner.

Turner's growth beyond victimization into strength and self-possession has become a part of contemporary folklore. Like the start-up tone of an Apple computer, just a note or two in her throaty voice instantly shorthands an entire brand story.

And shorthand would be a better way to share Tina's trials in a mainstream musical theater production. Turner often said that she wrote her memoir to get Ike's abuse out of her head. If you're not keen on seeing it re-enacted, much of the first act of "Tina" is tough to take.

In scene after scene, the reptilian Ike berates, humiliates and gut-punches Tina.

As Ike, Roderick Lawrence is so convincingly loathsome that you may feel a resistance to clapping at his curtain call.
We want to see Tina deliver the hits, not Ike.

Max Falls and Zurin Villanueva in 'Tina: The Tina Turner Musical' (photo: Matthew Murphy/MurphyMade)  

Undercutting their subject
"Tina" being a jukebox musical, it's no great surprise that the book, by Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prince, is skimpier than a fringed mini-skirt. But it's a big disappointment to find some of Turner's most crowd-pleasing songs emotionally rejiggered and musically messed-with in deference to the script.

Turner's original version of "Private Dancer" is a perfectly self-contained number; a dark character sketch (written by Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler) that gives voice to a world-weary stripper. It isn't a chapter of Turner's autobiography, it's one of her greatest performances as an actor.

So, it's particularly uncomfortable to see the song's steeliness turned to maudlin teariness by director Phyllida Lloyd and choreographer Anthony van Laast. In making it into a pseudo-biographical production number about Tina's post-Ike struggles as a working single mother, they ignore Turner's artistic ability to interpret a song that was not at all about herself.

The sensitive solitude of Turner's "I Can't Stand the Rain" is similarly inflated into a bizarre "Umbrellas of Cherbourg"-esque company number.

And while the book writers undoubtedly found it clever to connect lyrical snippets of "We Don't Need Another Hero" —"We are the children...we are the ones they left behind" — to the funeral of Turner's mother (Roz White), they inadvertently summon up images of Thunderdome's arch villain during a scene that's intended to elicit sympathies for the actress who played her.

In crazily mishmashing Turner's life story and artistic output, "Tina" tosses audiences a ball of confusion. As it happens, "Ball of Confusion" —originally performed by the Temptations— was the first song that Turner record with members of synth-pop band Heaven 17 in 1982. It led to a contract with Capitol Records for her comeback album.

The script switches that life-changing song to "What's Love Got to Do with It?," which Tina and the 17ers cut well after she'd been signed.

Different stages
Beyond Villanueva, the cast features several terrific vocalists: Nicole Powell's oracular gospel tones go far in fleshing out Turner's underwritten Grandmother Georgeanna. Ayvah Johnson gives young Anna Mae a spunky punch that makes you believe she could grow up to be Tina.

And Gerard Williams, who plays a bandmate of Ike's and lover of Tina's, has a creamy, dreamy baritone that makes his duet with Villanueva on "Let's Stay Together" the show's best non-solo number by a long shot.

But it's the crackling fusion of Villanueva and Turner that intermittently lifts "Tina" above its flimsily assembled foundation (Bruno Poet's dynamic lighting and Jeff Sugg's narrative-driving projections carry some weight as well).

In the end, there's only so much authentic excitement one could reasonably expect from a Tina Turner jukebox musical. Even her own commercially successful studio recordings of the 1980s tamped down the feral magnetism of Turner's concert performances.

In that first scene of "Tina," as Turner crouches downstage like a lion, a flashback scene begins to build behind a scrim.

Churchgoers in Anna Mae Bullock's childhood Tennessee are preparing for services hoisting chairs in the air, unwitting Turner tamers.

For Tina in beast mode, turn to "Rio '88," on video.

'Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,' through August 27. $43-$113. Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St. (888) 746-1799. www.broadwaysf.com

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