ABOVE: Zurin Villanueva is Tina Turner in the North American touring production of Tina – The Tina Turner Musical playing the Bay Area at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre and San Jose’s Center for the Performing Arts. BELOW: Villanueva as Tina performs as part of the Ike & Tina Tuner Revue. Photos by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade, 2022
Any time spent reveling in the glory of Tina Turner is time well spent. Turner is a musical titan, a quintessential story of American turmoil and triumph, a performer of legendary power. Her death earlier this year at age 83 brought new reverence to her life and career, forever enshrining her as the true Queen of Rock’n’Roll.
There’s no shortage of documentation when it comes to Turner’s remarkable, turbulent life. Turner herself published several memoirs. Angela Bassett memorably portrayed Turner on the big screen in the 1993 bio-pic What’s Love Got to Do With It. And five years ago in London, Turner’s life story exploded onto the musical theater stage with Tina – The Tina Turner Musical using her songbook to tell her life story. Turner and her second husband, Erwin Bach, are credited as executive producers, so the show has the artist’s stamp of approval. After running on Broadway in 2019 (then closing for Covid, then reopening in 2022 for a few months), the show is touring the country. In the wake of Turner’s death, having her live again through her Broadway avatar is strangely comforting.
Anyone tasked with playing Tuner obviously has some mighty, mighty stilettos to fill. For the tour, now at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season before heading to the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, the role is shared by Naomi Rodgers and Zurin Villanueva. At Wednesday’s press opening, Villanueva proved to be an extraordinary force, with the voice and the long legs to admirably conjure Turner’s flair and ferocity as well as the acting chops to help convey her emotional and spiritual depth.
Shoehorning existing pop songs into a biographical musical rarely works well, and the method is only intermittently successful in Tina. The trio of book writers – Pulitzer Prize-winner Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins – have taken the most conventional route imaginable. The show begins with promise as the barnburner “Nutbush City Limits” is re-conceived as a moody evocation of Turner’s small town Tennessee childhood, but then the mid-’80s B-side “Don’t Turn Around” becomes a duet for young Anna Mae Bullock (Turner’s birth name) and her grandmother (who raised her). The disconnect between the middling 1980s songwriting in the world of mid-1950s Tennessee is the first sign that the jukeboxing of Turner’s life will be less Jersey Boys or Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and more Summer: The Donna Summer Musical or Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical.
Some songs fit nicely into the storytelling: “Let’s Stay Together” is effective as a duet, “River Deep–Mountain High” dazzles in a straightforward recording session scene and “Tonight,” Turner’s 1986 duet with David Bowie, is intriguingly reimagined as a trio with Turner, her younger self and her grandmother. But others simply don’t work. “I Don’t Wanna Fight No More,” a new song Turner recorded for her bio-pic, is used as the dramatic Act 1 closer, and while Villanueva acts the hell out of it, the straightforward pop song is not the dramatic aria it needs to be in the moment of Turner’s escape from her abusive marriage and into the next, liberated phase of her life.
Other tunes, like “Private Dancer” and “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” are just plain awkward (what about her mother’s death is “life beyond the Thunderdome?”), while “I Can’t Stand the Rain” is just silly as Turner walks around London in the rain while the ensemble passes by with umbrellas. Apparently director Phyllida Lloyd used up all her good ideas in Mamma Mia!, a jukebox musical that, happily, doesn’t have to bother with real life.
Speaking of real life, it’s worth noting that slick musical theater is not an ideal medium for the depiction of spousal or child abuse. The very unreal singing and dancing contrasted with the very real violence toward women and children trivializes the former and undermines the pain and horror of the latter. For the sake of the dramatic arc, it’s understandable that the book writers would want us to know the nightmare of Turner’s marriage to Ike Turner so that her eventual escape and even more eventual emergence as one of the greatest rock stars of all time is fully felt.
Because Turner’s biography is so well known – try to find anyone who doesn’t hear the name Ike Turner and immediately think of him as an abuser – it’s a shame that the creative team didn’t find more creative, more inspired or more inventive ways to connect with Turner’s extraordinary journey. We whiz past all the signposts here as Turner rises, falls and then ascends to Olympian heights. But in splashing through these shallow, if flashy, waters, there isn’t much room for emotional connection.
After the curtain call, when all the biographical duties have been fulfilled, the show shakes off its narrative shackles and lets Tina be Tina. The mini-concert that ends the show is sublime. The whole enterprise comes to life in ways that have only previously been hinted at. For those rousing few minutes, Tina Turner is back with us, a flesh-and-blood survivor yet somehow, blissfully immortal.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Tina – The Tina Turner Musical continues through Aug. 27 as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com. The show runs Aug. 29-Sept. 23 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 S. Almaden Blvd., San Jose as part of the Broadway San Jose season. Call 408-792-4111 or visit broadwaysanjose.com. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission).