‘Tina: The Tina Turner Musical’ (playing now through May 14 at Playhouse Square) displays a small portion of the life of a gifted young girl who blossomed into a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee. Born Anna Mae Bullock in Nutbush, Tennessee on November 26, 1939, Turner is still a LIVING LEGEND today.
The musical is a chronological story of her journey to becoming the iconic Tina Turner. The songs that she writes and sings resonate with what was happening to her and around her during that time in her life.
The musical opens with Tina (Naomi Rodgers) in her iconic sequin dress, sitting with her back against the audience. She is in the lotus position chanting to “Etherland / Sound of Mystic Law”. The song has a Buddhist-influenced rhythmic beat. The show quickly moves into the song “Nutbush City Limits” and this stage scene is where a young Anna Mae (Ayvah Johnson), is in the church where her father, Floyd Richard Bullock (Kristopher Stanley Ward) is the Baptist minister. She is in the choir, outshining the other members. Her mother, Zelma (Roz White) is annoyed that she is singing too loud.
Johnson is a talented singer and actress appearing in multiple scenes throughout the musical. Her voice is strong and confident as she portrays the natural talent of young Anna Mae.
The supporting cast (when not singing) is more of a part of the subtle scenery, carrying and twirling small chairs during the opening church scene, which eventually become the parishioners. They move around slowly with a few props in multiple scenes. This is a stark contrast to the high energy of Tina or the intense and fast-paced scenes throughout the show.
Quickly, the next scene moves into the family’s modest kitchen where Anna Mae’s father is seen berating his wife and is also physically abusive to her. Her mother fights back and says, “No more!” She decides to leave with her older daughter, Alline (young Alline is played by Daelyanna Kelly Benson), and leaves Anna Mae to fend for herself alone with her troubled father. Anna Mae eventually is raised by her grandmother.
The musical depicts domestic violence, abuse, and harsh language as honestly and carefully as possible. The impact is poignant. The audience is stunned and at times, probably a bit uncomfortable. The young Anna Mae pulls the audience into her hurt world where she is rejected by her mother and again by her father. The audience is quiet and reserved. Although they may know Anna Mae was the victim of domestic violence, the portrayal is a harsh reality of what she experienced often in her younger years.
Casting the role of Tina Turner was no easy feat. To find an actress who could embody Tina’s voice, unique mannerisms, high dancing energy, and character would be difficult. The casting team sought talent from across the globe and held auditions to find just the right talent. Tonight’s role was played by Naomi Rodgers, who checked all of the qualification boxes.
Anna Mae is encouraged by her Gran Georgeanna (Carla R. Stewart) to go and live with her mother and sister Alline (Lillian Charles), The song “Don’t Turn Around” is sung by Tina, Gran Georgeanna, and the Ensemble. This move would bring her to meet the iconic Ike Turner. Her talent is quickly realized by Ike Turner (Garret Turner – no relation), and she is offered to “go on the road” at the age of 17.
While this story is being told, the music is also moving into the fantastic songs that Tina Turner is so great at performing. I was particularly moved by a scene with Tina and one of the saxophone players, Raymond Hill (Gerald Williams) who had become her lover. He serenades her with a lovely “Let’s Stay Together”, a song that was made so popular by Al Green and it was a mesmerizing performance. Raymond leaves the band and Ike convinces Tina to marry him. As he realizes that she is becoming the star of their show he begins to use drugs and becomes progressively more abusive toward her.
The entire first act depicts the successful creation of the Ike and Tina Turner duo and the escalation of the terrible abuse Ike gave Tina.
Garett Turner offers an incredible performance of Ike and how he can change from a charismatic gentleman to a nasty drug-abusing bully. The first act ends in Dallas in July of 1976 with Tina physically fighting back against Ike, fleeing their hotel in the middle of the night, and walking across a busy highway to a Ramada Inn with nothing but 39 cents to her name. She asks them for a room for the night. She is scared that they may not give her a room. (African Americans were frequently turned away in the not-so-distant past.) The scene ends with Tina standing alone on the stage, bruised and bloodstained, with one spotlight focused only on her. We see her slowly looking down, and in her hand is a room key. She is stunned. It was a very touching moment in the play as the audience was teary-eyed to see that there was a bit of humanity bestowed on her that night. It would be a pivotal moment in her life…. a new life without Ike.
Act II begins with Tina trying to gain her footing. She has nothing now. Everything was taken by Ike except her stage name. She is broke and struggling to get work. She does cabaret in Vegas and works with various producers both in the US and England but cannot gain traction. Producers are pushing and telling her what she needs to do to succeed, and nothing is working. She cannot get to the rock and roll music that she loves. The show performs “Private Dancer” and “Disco Inferno” in an attempt to find her own sound.
The song “What’s Love Got to Do With It” was presented to Tina as a pop song, but the beat doesn’t work well with Tina. She hates it. She eventually uses her influence to give it the rock sound she craves. The song and album move up the charts to number one, which ultimately leads her to her second Rock and Roll Hall of Fame award (the first one was with Ike). Tina is back!
During this time, she meets the love of her life, Erwin Bach (Max Falls). He said that he fell in love with her the moment they met. He is more than a tad younger than her but he would not be deterred. (They’ve been together ever since.)
The show had truly amazing music not only because of the outstanding renditions by Rodgers but the backup performers and the excellent band. I have attended and reviewed many rock and country live acts and it truly felt like I was at a rock show. As the second act appears to close and all take their bows, Rodgers asks everyone to remain on their feet while she performs two more songs. Suddenly the stage lights ignite and the full band ensemble is on the stage. (It would have been nice to see more of them throughout the show!) The rock and roll begins. They performed a superb version of “Nutbush City Limits” and “Proud Mary.” Tina is back in her sequin dress and her legs are moving in iconic fashion along with the glammed-up dance ensemble, who lit up the Connor Palace with lights, energy, and singing