Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade
When Ike and Tina Turner were popular recording artists, I was—I will admit—not a huge fan…which was weird because I loved songs like “I Want to Take You Higher” and “River Deep, Mountain High.” Something about them put me off, and I only learned later that it had more to do with Ike than anything else. It was superficial at first—I hated his objectively stupid hair—but I had the feeling (largely correct, as it turns out) that he was utterly taking advantage of his wife’s amazing talent and riding on the back of that voice to fame and fortune. Later, learning more about him, I would come to see him as an abusive, substance-abusing bully. But that was Ike, not Tina. Even in the early days, I felt something electric running through my body whenever I heard Tina’s powerful, unique voice.
Zurin Villanueva’s impression of that stunning voice powers “Tina—The Tina Turner Musical,” which has now brought its national tour to Chicago’s Nederlander Theatre. (She shares the role with Ari Groover.) It’s not just the voice, though, and the opportunity to discover things about Turner that I—not a big fan, remember—never knew before. Villanueva’s Tina, following a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Katori Hall that Turner herself approved, is as vulnerable as her voice is powerful. And her comeback story, from falling into near-oblivion in the 70s after finally leaving Ike to becoming a rock sensation as a solo act in the 80s and winning 12 Grammys, is no less powerful.
The show, directed by Phyllida Lloyd and choreographed by Anthony Van Laast, takes Turner from her Nutbush, Tennessee origins through her remarkable career. As a child—played by the preternaturally gifted Ayvah Johnson—the girl then known as Anna Mae Bullock was already showing off her remarkable pipes by singing in church. (Stick around through the whole curtain call even if you are usually inclined to leave early; it’s worth it just to see what Johnson can do with “Proud Mary.”) It is not long before her mother Zelma (Roz White) takes Anna Mae’s sister Alline (played as an adult by Parris Lewis) and leaves the abusive father of their children behind. Anna Mae is then brought up by her grandmother Georgeanna (Ann Nesby, in a beautiful and sensitive performance) before Ike (Garrett Turner as a male who is toxic in every possible way and then some) discovers her and brings her into his band with the promise of equal billing and a regular paycheck. The fact that he constantly withheld that pay is one of the things I didn’t know—she was penniless after leaving him—and I have to admit that seeing and hearing her on a Las Vegas stage singing “Disco Inferno” in a sparkly dress for almost no money was almost heartbreaking.
But we all know that this career nadir was not the end of the line, and part of the power (and pleasure) of this show is watching a talented and deserving woman finally make her way to the top. (Her 1984 Grammy-winning album “Private Dancer” and its huge hit “What’s Love Got to Do With It” led to her comeback and international acclaim.) This later version of Turner—the one with the iconic hair—is probably the one that most of the people in the audience, many of them Millennials, will be familiar with. Much of this new Tina was due to her new manager, Roger Davies (a boyishly enthusiastic Zachary Freier-Harrison), who helps her win the rock and roll superstardom that had eluded her. (Capitol Records refused to sign her even after hearing her showcase the new stuff…both out of ageism and, it turns out, racism. But her talent and Davies’ tenacity won the day.)
This touring production, with minimalistic staging (except for one immaculate set) and wonderful costumes (both provided by Mark Thompson) is as exciting and entertaining as anything I’ve seen on a stage in a long while. I think that the musical “Six” was the last time I was part of an audience so viscerally a part of the show. Backed by a thirteen-piece orchestra, Tina—The Tina Turner Musical will have you on your feet, clapping and cheering. And you’ll come away with a new (or renewed) appreciation for one of rock’s most original performers. This one is certainly right up near the top of my list of jukebox musicals.