We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The broad strokes of singer Tina Turner’s life have been retold in popular culture again and again: in her own autobiography, in the critically acclaimed film What’s Love Got to Do With It, and in an HBO documentary released last year. It keeps getting told because it’s a ripped-from-the-headlines A Star Is Born, a true life version of the stereotypical rise to fame narrative with an extra dash of resilience from the titular heroine. The touring production of TINA: The Tina Turner Musical has now come to the National Theatre, and even though you’ve likely heard this tale before, the melodrama and mountain highs make it well suited to a musical adaptation.
With a story so familiar, a lot rides on the execution, and, in particular, on the titular diva. For this touring production, the demanding role is split between Naomi Rodgers and Zurin Villanueva (Virginia native Rodgers played Tina the night of this critic’s performance). Rodgers has the range, the physicality, and the charisma to pull off such an iconic impersonation. She lets the raspiness of Tina’s voice come through while occasionally stretching notes in a more traditionally theatrical belt. She particularly shines whenever she plays Tina the rock star, but she’s just as compelling playing the wounded girl born Anna Mae Bullock.
The rest of the cast is up to the challenge. Garrett Turner is alternately charming and menacing as Tina’s abusive husband and former singing partner Ike, and when he’s performing it’s easy to see why Tina would be drawn to him. Anny Nesby and Roz White play Tina’s grandmother and mother and are both given showstopping moments of their own. And Ayvah Johnson, as young Anna Mae, is a superstar in the making, getting both her onstage audience and the crowd in the theater riled up from the first note she belts. The high-stepping ensemble is a delight to watch as they expertly perform the crowd-pleasing numbers.
Though music forms a natural backdrop to Tina’s life and career, the show sometimes struggles with a central problem of jukebox musicals. Tina has a deep catalog of hits both from her days performing with Ike and from her solo career, and some of these inevitably work better than others when shoehorned into the story.
“It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” is arranged as a conversation between Ike, Tina, and her family as they discuss her joining Ike’s touring group, and it serves as ironic foreshadowing for the couple’s doomed relationship. “I Can’t Stand the Rain” is intriguingly choreographed with a mix of umbrella-toting Londoners and specters from Tina’s past as she wanders the streets thinking about trying to reinvent herself in middle age. And “Private Dancer” works surprisingly well as an anthem about having to bend to the whims of record executives and tour managers. “We Don’t Need Another Hero” feels a bit out of place following the death of Tina’s mother (particularly with the references to Thunderdome left intact) but it had to go somewhere.
Throughout the production, the lines between theatrical and concert performance are blurred. Members of the orchestra come out from behind a screen to play along for the numbers that portray Tina’s live performances, disco lights glitter across the audience, and the crowd is clapping along and bouncing in their seats throughout. The final number, “The Best,” blows that boundary apart as Tina ascends a towering staircase, the screen rises to reveal the full band, and the audience is invited to get on their feet and sing along. After the curtain call, there’s even an encore of two more songs—the mark of a performance from a true diva.