REVIEW: Adrienne Warren’s star turn in “TINA: The Tina Turner Musical”
The Warren 2020 campaign is full steam ahead.
Of course, by Warren 2020 I mean Adrienne Warren’s campaign for the 2020 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.
Anyone who has seen her spell-binding, jaw-dropping, star turn in “TINA: The Tina Turner Musical”, which opened last night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway, knows exactly what I mean.
Stepping into the heels and donning the wigs and shimmering short skirts of the titular character, Ms. Warren (“Shuffle Along”) is nightly giving the rare kind of performance that becomes the stuff of legend, indelibly seared into the memory of those theatregoers fortunate enough to witness her transformation into one of the most iconic and idiosyncratic pop stars in music history.
Even more so than Stephanie J. Block’s dazzling portrayal of Cher last season, Ms. Warren becomes her diva by evening’s end, and the command of her craft—and her audience—is simply stunning to observe.
The musical itself, an explicit legacy project produced by Tina Turner, easily ranks among the upper echelons of the bio jukebox musical sub-genre (“Ain’t Too Proud” and “Jersey Boys” taking the lead)—not as well written as “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”, but with a much better story to tell, and leaps beyond “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical”, which incidentally haunted the Lunt-Fontanne for an ill-fated stint in 2018 (read my review), and “On Your Feet!” on nearly every conceivable mark.
After Carole, Gloria, Donna, and Cher, does Broadway really need Tina?
You may be tempted to groan about yet another pop diva bio-musical, but when it comes to this much-maligned sub-genre, which sells tickets but rarely earns critical acclaim, Tina Turner’s (hopefully) got the last word. She also has the best story to tell—one perfectly primed for musical theatre adaptation.
Born into an abusive household in Nutbush, Tennessee (pop. 259); abandoned by her parents; discovered, shaped, and physically abused by Ike Turner (Daniel J. Watts)—I counted six face slaps, one hair pulling, and several bouts of arm twisting—later left penniless and haplessly stuck on the Vegas circuit, in a career spent battling the twin evils of racism and misogyny, Tina Turner staged the greatest comeback in pop music history with 1984’s “Private Dancer”, becoming a global phenomenon in her own right and a sex symbol at the age of 45.
“TINA” tells this remarkable and improbable story straight, without much of a framing device, using all of Turner’s hit songs (“River Deep—Mountain High”, “Proud Mary”, “What’s Love Got To Do With It”, among others) in the process. There’s nothing earth-shattering about the show’s conception, construction, or execution—but not much that offends, either.
From the curtain’s first rise with the unmistakable vamp of “The Best”, the earth-shattering is instead left to Ms. Warren, who almost never leaves the stage—and for good reason.
Already a proven showstopper from 2016’s “Shuffle Along” for which she earned a Tony Award nomination, with a single look, a wink, a kick of her legs, or a swoosh of her hair, Ms. Warren captivates as few leading ladies can. And her singing voice seems divinely wrought—an eighth wonder of the world so expansively impressive that you catch yourself doubting that what you are hearing is real. But it is.
Under the helm of “Mamma Mia!” duo director Phyllida Lloyd and choreographer Anthony van Laast, “TINA” delivers what it needs to, if rarely going beyond. The book by playwright Katori Hall (“The Mountaintop”), with Frank Ketelaar and Keys Prins, moves the story along swiftly, punctuating the various plot points of Turner’s life and smartly doling out the requisite detail or impressionism where needed. It’s a workmanlike text that does the job then stands aside to let the music do its thing, with orchestrations by Ethan Popp with arrangements by Nicholas Skilbeck.
In London last year, I saw Ms. Warren’s alternate, and the show stood on its own without her considerable star power at the center. On Broadway, Nkeki Obi-Melekwe plays the title role in Wednesday and Saturday matinees.
However, the force of a single performance—no matter who it is—is not enough to overcome the fact that “TINA”, while among the best of its sub-genre, is still itself a rather unremarkable musical as far as the form is concerned, a terrific entertainment that tells a good story and does it well, but outside of Ms. Warren (or, I’m sure, Ms. Obi-Melekwe), is ultimately just fine.
As has become tradition for such musicals on Broadway, “TINA” ends with a mini post-bows concert that blows all others out of the water. Following a tease nearly two and a half hours long, we finally get an extended sequence of Ms. Warren performing in a concert—a recreation of her 1988’s Guinness World Record-making appearance in Rio de Janeiro that attracted over 180,000 people—and a complete rendition of Turner’s signature song, “Proud Mary”.
Formulas work—it’s hard to begrudge one done well—and these final minutes contain the sparkle missing elsewhere. They are enough to send you out of the theatre smiling, humming the tunes, and riding the high of Ms. Warren’s transcendent performance, rolling down a river, or else Times Square.
Bottom Line: Adrienne Warren gives a spell-binding, jaw-dropping, star turn in “TINA: The Tina Turner Musical”. There’s nothing earth-shattering about the show’s conception, construction, or execution—but not much that offends, either. “TINA”, among the best of its sub-genre of bio-musicals, is a rather unremarkable musical as far as the form is concerned but a terrific entertainment that tells a good story and does it well. See it for Adrienne Warren’s transcendent performance.