The lights come up on a woman just sitting, not moving and with her back to us.
That’s all it takes for the audience to start applauding and cheering.
Even if we didn’t know the musical we were about to see is TINA, the wild and wooly hairdo on the performer would tell us she’s supposed to be Tina Turner.
Truth to tell, Turner is the one who’s getting that applause and those cheers, not the actress who’ll be playing her. In fact, we can’t even be sure if the person sitting and looking upstage is Adrienne Warren, who landed the job of portraying the former Anna Mae Bullock for much of the night.
Yet Warren will soon be getting her own wild applause and loud cheers. They’ll come after her renditions of “River Deep — Mountain High,” “Better Be Good to Me” and, needless to say, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”
Those responses will pale compared to the decibel-destroying response Warren will get during her curtain call. She can’t take total credit for the standing ovation that this London hit gets, for the moment the show comes to an end, much of the audience at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre has already been up for minutes.
So although Warren was a Best Featured Actress in a Musical Tony nominee in 2016 for SHUFFLE ALONG (a title that sported 13 other non-essential words that needn’t be repeated here), she’ll get another Tony nod this year — but in a distinctly different category.
Katori (THE MOUNTAINTOP) Hall, Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins are the latest writers who had to find a way to turn a famous entertainer’s story into an entertainment. So many of these tales aren’t just rags-to-riches but rags-to-riches-to-rags-again-to-riches again. That too is the case with TINA.
That Ms. Turner’s story was already told 26 years ago when WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT? hit multiplexes – and was a hit – has given the writing trio a bigger challenge. They’re wise to start with a religious revival meeting where little Anna Mae Bullock of Nutbush (!), Tennessee can’t stay in her seat because she’s so moved by the music.
Her father Richard Bullock is constantly moving, too. He’s one of those frenetic ants-in-his-pants preachers who agitates the crowd to repent to Jesus, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Just wait till we get him home. This “Man of God” is a holy terror. When he and his wife Zelma get into an argument – “How come you put Anna Mae first?” — Richard settles the dispute by violently hitting her.
Zelma not only leaves but also makes a Sophie-like choice. She takes her other daughter Alline with her and leaves Anna Mae behind. Richard will soon foist the child on her grandmother.
That would seem to be another hardship. Except, as many of us know, grandmothers often have a greater capacity for love than parents do.
“You’re my mama to me,” says an appreciative Anna Mae.
Here too the triumvirate excels in establishing – or making – “Gran Georgeanna” a woman of great vision. “That voice,” she says with both admiration and wonder (which Myra Lucretia Taylor potently delivers).
Pretty soon we’ll wish that Anna Mae could follow in her mother’s footsteps. After she rejects Raymond, who truly loves her (yes, a nice guy again finishes last), she meets Ike Turner. Exhibit A that he’s controlling: Ike changes Anna Mae’s name to Tina Turner without consulting her AND before they’re married.
In essence, the newly minted Tina makes a Faustian-like bargain to settle for the man who won’t love her unconditionally but can get her ahead in the music world. Meanwhile, we don’t count the blessings he gives her but the beatings.
“I get so passionate about the music” is how Ike excuses himself. But how many times can you bear to see him hit her?
The writers may well be surmising that Ms. Turner endured these attacks because she grew up seeing them and was inured to a husband’s taking this liberty. It’s as viable a theory as any. “Men have a way of making little people do what they want to do” is one explanation.
Many will have contempt for Tina for allowing herself to be victimized – not only by the beatings, but also by the way she handles Life-after-Ike. All those rave opinions from the pros (“She’s James Brown in a skirt” is the way recording mogul Phil Spector puts it) eventually turn into “She’s a forty-year-old soul singer has-been.”
Musicals famously have second-act trouble; here Act Two sports the show’s most pungent scene: Tina rushes to the hospital to see her mother and finds Ike there. In a way, Tina’s even making the effort speaks well of her; earlier when she first reconnected with her mother after years apart, we were surprised at how Mama responds.
Warren, with her toothpaste-ad smile, does resemble Turner during her early years. Better still, she replicates the diva’s sound and has the same magnetic stage presence. Just the way she grabs the microphone head off the stand shows confidence, ease and style.
Daniel J. Watts conveys Ike’s utter amorality. He sees nothing wrong in the way he deals with Tina (starting with his offering her $28 a week to appear with him). When Ike begs forgiveness from Tina, Watts shows he’s not at all sorry but knows he needs her.
As for the sets, they’re flat – literally: one flat after another slides in, most of them looking as if they came from Home Depot at $150 a pop. True, for the early impoverished scenes, the plywood look of suburban basements suffices; afterwards, however, the enterprise looks cheap.
For most of the show, only a narrow strip of the stage is displayed; the upper part – more than 50% worth – is masked in black. Set designer Mark Thompson and/or director Phyllida Lloyd may have felt that this low-ceilinged and claustrophobic approach would be justified when the entire stage was revealed during the final number and post-show medley. That is indeed where the show reaches its performance peak.
Here’s wishing that the writers had explained why Turner, after reclaiming her life, didn’t reclaim her original last name, too. One might argue that the name had become famous, but other superstars have added names (Farrah Fawcett Majors) or subtracted them (Roseanne); one even abandoned his in favor of an atypical symbol (remember “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”?). Each time, the public hasn’t been confused, devastated or even piqued. Fans let the performer make the call and accept any name they’re given. So under the circumstances, why didn’t Turner?
No, why HASN’T Turner? There’s still time.
There’s still time to see TINA. For how long, though? The show’s rapturous response was akin to the ones heard at SUMMER and THE CHER SHOW — and they didn’t last nearly as long as those receptions indicated. Maybe those shows were hurt by having three different performers play their title characters. That made Donna Summer and Cher come across as a symbol rather than a real person.
TINA doesn’t make that mistake. It has the one and only Adrienne Warren as the one and only Tina. Stephanie J. Block won a Tony for playing one-third of Cher; that should entitle Warren to three for steering Tina Turner from adolescence to stardom.