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Review: Tina Turner's The Legend and Adrienne Warren's The Breakout Star in TINA: THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL

Though her time on Broadway has been relatively brief up until now, Adrienne Warren is no stranger to dazzling theatre audiences with portrayals of legendary entertainers. She did it twice in her last outing, SHUFFLE ALONG, OR, THE MAKING OF THE MUSICAL SENSATION OF 1921 AND ALL THAT FOLLOWED, playing both the exuberant Gertrude Saunders, whose cutesy singing would be appropriated by the white mainstream as the model for the iconic Betty Boop, and Florence Mills, one of the great singing artists of the early 20th Century.

Tina: The Tina Turner Musical
Adrienne Warren and Company
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Naturally, the assignment's a bit more challenging when playing a beloved megastar whose glory days are still fresh in the public's heart. But in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical Warren responds with a sensational breakout performance of spot-on acting, soaring vocals and authoritative dancing that manages to balance a sincere tribute to Tina Turner with a bold announcement of a new star's presence. By the time she's rocking the house with a post-curtain call encore, the memories that may have lured fans into the Lunt-Fontanne have given way to the immediate excitement of watching electric talent taking charge.

Warren was in the spotlight when TINA premiered on the West End in April of 2018 and is now joined by a completely new cast in director Phyllida Lloyd's red hot production. Olivier Award winning playwright Katori Hall has penned the book, with secondary credit given to Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins.

As with any bio-jukebox musical, there is the difficulty in giving the public the songs they want presented in the manner they remember while sustaining a serious story. Sure, there's a bit of dramatic shorthand involved as TINA tackles the issues of spousal abuse, sexism, racism and ageism as its subject evolves from being a work of art molded by men to a singular artist who creates within herself, but the book contains some solid scene work that can be as moving and emotionally satisfying as watching the creation of Ike and Tina Turner's cover of "Proud Mary", to seeing the woman declare iconic status for herself with "What's Love Got To Do With It."

Bookended by scenes where the international treasure is using transcendental meditation to prepare for a 1988 concert in Brazil that attracted 180, 000 fans, TINA's story begins in Nutbush, Tennessee when the child then known as Anna Mae Bullock (adorably energetic Skye Dakota Turner) can't sit still in church because she's so excited to sing louder and stronger than anyone else in the congregation.

Back home, her mother Zelma (Dawnn Lewis) scolds her for embarrassing the family, while her father Richard (David Jennings) defends her expression of joy. Their argument gets physically violent (the musical's many, realistically staged moments of physical violence are staged by Sordelet, Inc.) and Zelma leaves for St. Louis with elder daughter Alline (Gloria Manning as a child, Mars Rucker as a teenager/adult).

Eventually making her way to the Gateway City, the teenage Tina's singing voice attracts the attention of local celeb Ike Turner (an excellent portrayal of a charismatic showman and a controlling abuser by Daniel J. Watts) who begins molding her to his needs as soon as Zelma gives permission for her to go on the road with him as co-star of an act that will soon gain fame as The Ike & Tina Turner Revue.

Tina: The Tina Turner Musical
Adrienne Warren and Daniel J. Watts
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Anna Mae initially objects to having her name changed, especially since it gives the impression that she and Ike are married while she's having a secret love affair with band member Raymond (warmly romantic Gerald Caesar). But she gives in when Ike displays his anger. While not justifying it, the book does address the reasons for Ike's violent tendencies and Tina's initial willingness to accept him that way.

Tensions mount when record producer Phil Spector (Steven Booth) disregards Ike to record solo vocals for Tina, and it's no spoiler to reveal that when Tina Turner leaves Ike at the end of the first act, she is financially destitute and legally restricted from performing the songs that made her famous. The second act deals with her self-reinvention from a Las Vegas novelty to, with the help of genius producer Roger Davies (apparently one of the few in the industry who believed a black woman over 40 can still make hit records), an original force of musical majesty that soon has her declared as The Queen of Rock 'n' Roll.

Designers Mark Thompson (sets and costumes) and Bruno Poet (lights) do great jobs defining stages in Tina Turner's career with the production values displayed when the character is performing before different audiences. Choreographer Anthony Van Laast vividly recreates memorable dance moments.

This reviewer, who came in with just a passing familiarity with Tina Turner's career, was impressed with the overall slick professionalism of a production that aggressively entertains while telling its story with humor and dramatic finesse. My guest, a passionate Tina Turner fan, seemed overwhelmed with joy. We both can't wait to see what Adrienne Warren has in store next.

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