Saturday 24th March 2018 at the Aldwych Theatre, London.
In Adrienne Warren, Tina: The Tina Turner Musical has secured star power that is both rare and incredibly powerful, both vocally and emotionally. I saw the show on Saturday and it’s clear to see the makings of a hit – but the success of this production currently lies firmly at the feet of US stage star and all round powerhouse Warren. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, the production takes shape as a hybrid drama-musical, with extended scenes to give the dramatic elements of Turner’s life sufficient weight and recognition as well as glorifying her journey to becoming a vastly successful musical icon. With book by Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins, this production maps out the life of a much loved legend. Segues between songs (most of the favourites are included, worry not – The Best, Nutbush and What’s Love Got to do With It all have their moment) are generally well placed, with a few exceptions which might cause eye rolls from the more cynical of us. We begin with a vision of Tina in her prime, before the narrative shifts back in time to tell her story. We eventually come full circle and return to this image of success, with a greater appreciation for this moment in Turner’s life and career.
The narrative spans humble beginnings in a small community, familial breakdown, the youthful development of aspirations and the blossoming of love affairs before tackling the more widely known aspects of Turner’s life; the Ike years, the domestic abuse and subsequent alienation from the music world before making a glorious comeback in her 40s – a return to the limelight which saw success of epic proportions. What might surprise some about this production is the emphatic and unflinching exploration of the the racism experienced by Tina and the band – venturing into the south, the production descends into recognisable scenes of sickening blanket racism and the music industry itself is infected with this disease at the highest level.While Warren is outrageously talented in her renditions of Turner’s songs, she doesn’t always seek to recreate Turner’s vocals; lets face it, Turner’s vocals are pretty distinctive and unique and Warren needs to make her own mark here. Her voice is capable of gentler sounds and she does showcase her own vocal ability through brief departures from Tina’s rip-roaring, full pelt vocals. That said, Warren does have the uncanny ability to capture the raw tones of Turner’s most powerful towering notes – those rocking roars and those high notes packed with passion are tackled into submission while Warren shows absolutely no sign of strain.
Most impressive of all is how Warren stays ahead of the relentless vocal demands of singing from the Turner song book – for someone without that natural huskiness to deliver time and again despite the demanding nature of the songs is nothing short of superb. Warren tells Turner’s story with great feeling too of course; Lloyd’s production isn’t just about the music – in fact the music often takes a back seat while the story is given justice. Her performance in dramatic scenes had me choked up more than once but she also captures Turner’s sense of fun and joy. It’s not just the pain of Turner’s story which inspires this emotional response – it’s also the emphasis on celebrating the way she overcame everything thrown at her in a story by now common knowledge but remaining ever inspirational and powerful.Serena Mukuna is wonderful as the exuberant Young Anna Mae Bullock (Tina prior to the stage name) – a frustration to her mother but a crystal clear vision of a future visionary. Madeline Appiah plays Turner’s mother Zelma Bullock with a cold detachment that sees opportunities for some of the most heart clutching depictions of the emotional strains Turner felt from a very young age. Kit Esuruoso brings the frictions between home and career to the fore as Craig – a boy torn between needing his mother and understanding her struggles as she seeks to keep the family afloat. Gran Georgeanna is played with a quiet wisdom by Lorna Gayle, who introduces the origins of Turner’s faith – a faith that she will return to and rely upon.
Francesca Jackson offers a supportive Rhonda Graam who comes into Turner’s life as a threat but quickly becomes an ally and lifeline. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith plays a decidedly remote Ike Turner – I remain puzzled by the lack of movement and emotion in his early scenes, especially as Ike did enjoy musical success before he came across Tina, but Holdbrook-Smith does capture the vital sense of threat and communicates Ike’s frustrations expressively. Despite a ballad and a scene of transformation, there’s not much room for warmth for this man so deeply intertwined with the suffering of the legend that is Tina Turner.
Mark Thompson’s costume designs capture some of Turner’s most recognisable looks as well as her fierce and raunchy style, as do the wig, hair and make up designs from Campbell Young Associates. Thompson’s set features a revolve which provides some of the West End spectacle and precision lacking in other areas, with the sequence for Private Dancer being particularly memorable and visually impactful. There are also some clever approaches to scene changes which shift us in time and place through one particular versatile set piece; one minute a fish tank, the next a hospital room – each setting concisely captured with economy.
The real spectacle arrives with the finale, which sees Warren deliver a trio of songs in a re-enactment of one of Turner’s most famous live performances in that blazing red dress. Lighting design from Bruno Poet combines with projections to create the image of a concert stage and the audience are treated not to a Tina Turner mini concert, but to the next best thing; Adrienne Warren belting out rock anthem and stratospherically successful pop hit like each of them is a vocal walk in the park.
While there’s much to please, I can’t deny that the production currently lacks the overall shine of a West End musical; choreography from Anthony Van Laast is not always as slick and seamless as it should be, with some intensely physical sequences falling short of the intended synchronised movement – but of course, this should sync up and sharpen up as the production finds its stride. It’s a similar situation with the fight sequences designed by Kate Waters; they’re almost achieving full impact, but not quite just yet.
Most importantly, the production does tell a worthy story and seems to declare that we should never forget that behind the sequins and the shimmying, there’s an epic and awe-inspiring journey travelled at great personal and emotional cost. Warren is a phenomenal lead who gives a versatile and powerful performance which makes this new musical every bit worth seeing, whether or not the elements currently lacking end up as bright and shiny as the leading lady. The production ends on a fittingly energetic high, leaving us with an image of Tina Turner at the peak of her comeback as the crowd roars and the lights dazzle – the audience are on their feet, dancing, clapping and cheering before leaving the theatre on a high – and the comments as they leave? All about the ‘amazing’ Adrienne Warren…
Tina: The Tina Turner Musical plays at the Aldwych Theatre, London, and has a 14+ age advisory. You can find tickets here.