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The River is deep, but the script is shallow

A photo of the scene outside Tina on Broadway.
Austin Riffelmacher / THE GATEPOST

By Austin Riffelmacher

The music of Tina Turner is “simply the best.”

The Broadway musical “Tina – The Tina Turner Musical” is not.

That’s not to say this was a painful experience in the theater. With Adrienne Warren at the center of the show as Tina, it’s thrilling.

Warren does not do a cruise ship imitation of the rock legend. Instead, she provides a window into Turner’s life which featured many trials and tribulations.

A window though, not a door.

Turner’s story from poor Black girl in Nutbush, Tennessee, to the domestic abuse she suffered from husband and fellow rock legend Ike Turner, and finally her epic comeback in the 1980s is one of the greatest American biographies in pop culture.

Turner’s life is about resilience, and the musical’s bullet-point style narrative leaves the audience thinking about the music rather than the story.

Like virtually all jukebox musicals, the show’s book is so horrendous, you can’t escape how these productions only come about because a producer had the rights to a catalogue and wished to exploit the generation that grew up with Turner.

The show’s lead producer is Stage Entertainment, a Dutch-based company that mainly specializes in presenting successful American musicals in local European markets.

“Tina” is currently playing in Madrid, Hamburg, and the Netherlands. The songs are sung in English, but the book is translated.

That sounds like the most ideal combination, because when the dramatized versions of Turner and Co. slip into dialogue, intellectually, the show falls on its face.

That’s not to say Katori Hall, the book’s author, is fully to blame. Hall, who wrote the wonderfully captivating play “The Mountaintop,” is at the mercy of Phyllida Lloyd – the director who started this dire trend with “Mamma Mia” – and her lack of a coherency journeying through Turner’s life.

Part of the problem is the interspersing of songs from late in Turner’s career with significant moments early in her life.

When Tina sings “Better be good to me” to Ike in 1962 after he proposes to her, it works as irony for what’s to come later. But the song from 1984 not only sounds out of place, it also just doesn’t make sense in her character development up until then.

As Ike Turner, Daniel J. Watts is terrific, if underused. His abilities vocally, physically, and dramatically are brie[y referenced to – not explored – which is a shame because you can tell if provided with better material, he’d be explosive on stage.

The creative team may have avoided being redundant about Ike and Tina’s relationship, as the 1993 film, “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” starring Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishbourne, was primarily focused with Turner’s fame in context of the abusive relationship.

The stage musical’s one asset over the film is its display of how difficult it was for Turner to make a comeback in the ’80s, as she was seen by record labels as being old-fashioned.

The most pathetic moment of the second act is the number “Open Arms,” which is a duet between Tina and her then manager Rhonda Gramm, who is introduced in the first act as having an affair with Ike while he was married to Tina. Again, in its lack of any decent dramaturgy, it’s really confusing as to when they became best girlfriends.

The other characters and the ensemble are stock – but the cast is fine, nonetheless.

It should come as no surprise the three musical highlights of the evening are when Warren takes us to the stars with the classics “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” “The Best,” and without hyperbole, her mind-blowing rendition of “River Deep, Mountain High.”

The 12-piece band does a very nice job, although there is a lot of amplification from Nevin Steinberg’s rock concert style sound design. We don’t get to see them until the finale, and it’s a shame, because most audience members probably wouldn’t recognize the music was live beforehand.

Warren left the musical Oct. 31. With all due respect to the future women playing Tina Turner, there is no reason to sit through this show without Warren.

The album is far more engaging. Stay home and jam to that.

B – Uneven, but still fun


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