Review: "The Tina Turner Musical" at Playhouse Square Will Take You Higher

Though it doesn't delve too deeply into the horrors of her personal life, the show is an energetic celebration of her career

click to enlarge Naomi Rodgers as Tina Turner - Photo by Matthew Murphy
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Naomi Rodgers as Tina Turner
If you were asked to describe Tina Turner's singing voice, chances are you'd use the word electrifying. As the unofficially dubbed "Queen of Rock 'n' Roll," Tina could turn an ordinary rock song into an anthem, and an anthem into a life-altering experience.

While it's not the lady herself, Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, now at Playhouse Square, does Tina quite proud. In particular, Naomi Rodgers who portrayed Tina on this night (she shares the part at different performances with Zurin Villanueva) was certainly electrifying. But since she doesn't fully look or sound like Tina, it's an electricity of a different sort. Let's call it a more modulated current instead of the original's blast of in-your-face, get-the-hell-out-of-my-way direct current.

The book by Katori Hill (with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins) follows Tina's chronological path from her childhood as Anna Mae Bullock in Nutbush, Tennessee to her marriage and partnership with bandleader Ike Turner (Garrett Turner) and eventually to her triumph as a single performer. This structure is informative and interesting, exploring intersections with other rock geniuses such as Phil Spector and his "wall of sound." But this lockstep format tends to slow the momentum of the story as small, often irrelevant details are attended to instead of focusing on Tina's soaring artistic product and her seriously impaired personal life.

We do learn that Anna Mae (played by little Ayvah Johnson with a gorgeous, adult-sized voice) had a rough start, since both her mother Zelma (Roz White) and father Richard (Kristopher Stanley Ward) abandoned her while she was in grade school, when she was sent to live with her maternal grandmother Georgeanna (Carla R. Stewart). The pain of that abandonment was increased by her marriage to Ike, who physically and mentally abused her on multiple occasions.

The musical doesn't spend any of its nearly three-hour run time explaining the demons that bedeviled Ike, torments that might have contributed to his patently hateful behavior, including being sexually abused when he was a child. But this is Tina's show and it details how their performance partnership, the Ike and Tina Turner Review, caught hold in clubs and with singles like "Nutbush City Limits" and "River Deep—Mountain High."

After their final breakup, Tina at age 43 walks out with just the change in her purse and works as a maid. It is a sad milestone, curiously paired here with her classic lament "Private Dancer," which is about working as a prostitute. Hey, poetic license. From that low point, she found support from various recording artists and producers, then went on to record her Grammy Record of the Year, "What's Love Got to Do with It?" Her solo career then rocketed her to a second Rock Hall of Fame induction (the first one was with Ike), and her eternal fame was sealed.

Director Phyllida Lloyd and choreographer Anthony Van Laast keep her life's journey, known by many through Turner's autobiography "I, Tina" and the movie What's Love Got to Do with It, as fresh as possible, with the added eye candy of Mark Thompson's dazzling set and costume designs plus Jeff Sugg's lush projections.

The challenge in a piece like this is knowing how to balance the dark moments of Tina's past with the light of her talent. And this production leans away from the real horror of domestic abuse for this woman who was also trying to protect four children — two of her own and two she adopted from Ike. We see Ike slap her a couple times, but of course the pain of that abuse was much worse, mentally and physically, which made her rise from the ashes of that relationship even more compelling.

As splendid as Rodgers' performance as Tina is, it doesn't quite capture the wrenching agony that Turner was able to convey through her unique vocal instrument. As a result, there isn't a real climactic emotional moment in this show until, after the curtain call, Rodgers comes back on in full rock-concert mode to deliver "Nutbush City Limits" and "Proud Mary" as a much-appreciated coda.

While that moment might have worked even better woven into the story itself, it's a genuine treat and leaves the audience drenched in Tina Turner's remarkable life and status as a rock icon. Ultimately, Tina wants to take you higher, and it certainly does.

Through May 14 at Playhouse Square, Connor Palace Theater, 1615 Euclid Ave.,, 216-241-6000.

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About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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