If Jersey Boys is the model for the pop biopic genre, then the West End import Tina: The Tina Turner Musical is the middle–another excuse, after The Cher Show and a jukebox full of others, for a soaring central performance swaddled in glitz and tinsel. Adrienne Warren is all that as Turner, but the show that surrounds her is as hoary and hokey as most of its predecessors, and as redundant as its title. (What other “Tina” is there?)
The R&B and rock goddess’ life has been packaged before, as the autobiography I, Tina: My Life Story (1986) and the Oscar-nominated adaptation What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993), so any new telling is likely to have all the surprise of one of those unboxing videos found on YouTube. Still, the opening scene, where the Buddhist candles and chanting that would come to center the superstar merge with little Anna Mae Bullock’s hardscrabble, gospel-inflected childhood in Tennessee, raises hopes for something conceptually compelling. The promise fades: working with the co-writers of what the Playbill calls “the smash hit bio-musical Hij Gelooft in Mij,” playwright Katori Hall (of the impenetrable MLK fantasia The Mountaintop) adheres to the rags to riches template, and ticks off the chapter headings: Lonely Girlhood. Dreams of Success. Life With Ike. Rigors of the Road. Heartache and Horror. Starting Over. Comeback. The show honors Turner’s accomplishments as an artist and inspirational survivor of poverty, neglect, and domestic abuse, but does so flatly, and the procession of tepidly written highlights and lowlights is numbing.
Terrible person though he was Ike Turner was a live wire, and Daniel J. Watts gives him enough swagger, savvy, and bullshit charm to show why Turner stuck it out with him. He’s pretty much exorcised, though, by the second act, as she rebuilds her life and career, and Warren has to struggle with blander characterizations and co-stars. Tina is at its best when music takes center stage–the backstage tumult behind the Phil Spector-produced “River Deep–Mountain High” is vividly dramatized, as are the battles to update her sound for the synth-driven 80s (she initially hated what became her signature song, which gave the film its title). After she dismisses her awful mother, however, the show is done with drama, as Turner settles into romantic bliss with the much younger German music producer Erwin Bach and closes the door on her professional life. No disrespect but Hij Gelooft in Mij probably had a more colorful third act.
As in her smash hit Mamma Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd drops in the songs where they’re needed dramatically, not chronologically, to lesser effect: “Private Dancer” doesn’t really speak to her post-Ike career chasm and is wasted, particularly when a subsequent cover of “Disco Inferno” in a Vegas dive does the same thing. That said Warren goes mountain high on every number and is never less than sensational, giving her all to put flesh and blood on the skeleton that is this canned Tina Turner musical. I felt for her when the show simply gives up and becomes a concert stage, saving two of her most famous songs for an encore performance. Tina: The Tina Turner Musical locks Adrienne Warren into a Tina Turner impersonation, when the star clearly had the chops to go beyond the surface of her extraordinary life.