With a musical like TINA THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL, I come in expecting two primary elements: Big hits and star power. Fortunately, this first national tour delivers big-time on the star power with Zurin Villanueva in the title role. Villanueva is a definitive STAR: She has an immensely powerful belt, she emulates Tina Turner’s distinctive, gravelly belt, and she has boundless energy. I was exhausted watching Villanueva (who alternates the role with Ari Groover) perform it all without batting an eyelash. Villanueva has iconic performer energy in spades.
When it comes to the material, TINA doesn’t chart any new territory for bio jukebox musicals. Katori Hall’s book (with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins) doesn’t solve the impossible task of representing an artist’s personal traumas with the primary goal of making the show FUN. The first act doesn’t shy away by any means from depicting Tina’s struggles, but it runs through them like a grab bag of problems: racism, sexism, and notably, domestic abuse. The latter was undoubtedly a terrible thread in Tina’s life: Her parents had an abusive relationship and her first husband Ike Turner was also an abuser. Alas, because Ike discovered Tina and controlled her money, she stayed with him in an abusive marriage for 16 years. In real-life, I’m sure the dynamic between Ike and Tina was more complicated, but he’s depicted as a one-note abuser. Garrett Turner does convey that line between charming and manipulative, but the role on paper isn’t much. At one point, he sings “Be Tender with Me Baby” as an attempt to win Tina back; it’s almost ironic, but the show doesn’t really have room for irony.
Hall’s book finds better footing in the second act, which portrays Tina’s comeback as a solo artist. I think it helps that the biographical material at this point is sunnier; it’s all about Tina’s stratospheric rise to fame as a resilient woman who left her abusive husband in the dust and moved forward. The second act also has the hits coming fast and furious, with better pacing and more of the expected jukebox musical fun.
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd and with choreography from Anthony Van Laast, the production has all the requisite talent and razzle dazzle of the genre. Villanueva is joined onstage by several formidable performers, especially Avyah Johnson as Young-Anna Mae (a.k.a Young Tina). When it comes to production design, I was hoping for spectacle and sparkle. Mark Thompson’s costumes have all the glitter and glitz to showcase Tina’s star status.
Villanueva gives Tina her all. Even when the book is thin, Villanueva portrays the full spectrum of emotions across Tina’s life experiences. She has so much POWER in her voice, and every song is a gem. She makes “River Deep, Mountain High” a character study all on its own. Villanueva’s vocals are not only on point, but she plays the emotional arc of the song beautifully. That moment belies all the work she’s doing in the role: TINA demands a star to deliver the iconic song catalog, and here she is.
The Broadway In Chicago engagement of the TINA THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL national tour runs through April 2, 2023 at the James M. Nederlander Theater, 24 West Randolph Street. Visit Broadwayinchicago.com.
Photo by Matthew Murphy