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‘Tina’ brings the blessings of church to the standard jukebox musical

Adrienne Warren is a rock ‘n’ roll star in her own right

In order for a jukebox musical to transcend its reputation as high-end karaoke, it helps if it feels like church. At Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Adrienne Warren is the reverend, the deacons, the usher board and the choir director, all rolled into one tiny, explosive body.

Warren is the star of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, which tells the story of how a Tennessee hayseed named Anna Mae Bullock became Tina Turner with the help of an enterprising bandleader named Ike, and then reinvented herself again to become the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Warren, along with book writers Katori Hall, Kees Prins and Frank Ketelaar, might just be the perfect combination to redeem the oft-reviled concept of the jukebox musical.

It helps when the gravitational force at the center of the show can be described as “James Brown in a skirt.” What’s even better is when she considers that assessment, smiles a mischievous little smile, and then shoots back, “Or do they call him Tina Turner in pants?”

Adrienne Warren, who perfected the title role during a run on London’s West End before the show moved to New York, has clearly studied her subject.

Manuel Harlan

Jukebox musicals often seem destined to disappoint. The storylines are often shoehorned around the artist’s repertoire and the results can be less than coherent and haphazardly paced. And because these shows often rely on cooperation from the artist’s estate, and because they are typically big productions with a lot of money at stake, the odds of hagiography-through-greatest-hits are high.

Then there’s the atmosphere. In the theater, audience members are expected to be on time, to sit, to clap when appropriate and — perhaps most of all — to shut up and let the performers sing. Pop concerts, on the other hand, the ones that possess enough sizzle to justify ticket prices that equal a car payment, need to manufacture an atmosphere of participatory chaos. Standing, singing along and dancing along to the choreography you memorized from the music videos is expected. Time becomes a more malleable dimension, because who knows when the headliner will finally take the stage after the opening act?

There is one venue where the marriage of these two disparate atmospheres takes place regularly: church.

It’s fitting then, that Tina begins in her father’s Nutbush, Tennessee, church, where the woman with killer legs and a soaring voice got her start. “Tina” opens with a set that could easily be used for another revival of The Color Purple. (Turner’s parents were sharecroppers.) An enormous oak watches over a band of weary black folks working land they don’t own, and a humble church materializes. The voice of young Anna Mae, Skye Dakota Turner, who opens and closes Tina with a precocious ferocity, rings out, quickly shushed by a mother who thinks she’s too loud.

From there, Turner’s story becomes a fleet-footed, high-wire act of song, history, abuse and triumph. If there is one bit of awkwardness to be found in the show, it’s the circumstances that leave a giant oak sliding across the stage and into the middle of a two-lane highway projected onto the back wall of the stage as Anna Mae departs Nutbush for St. Louis, Missouri, where she first meets Ike Turner.

The most unexpected turn, and one that sets Tina apart from other jukebox musicals, lays in the way it uses “Proud Mary.” Written by John Fogerty and first recorded by Creedence Clearwater Revival, it has become a signature Turner song, in much the same way that Whitney Houston wrested “I Will Always Love You” from Dolly Parton, or the way Aretha Franklin jacked “Respect” from Otis Redding.

Tina bravely chooses to infuse it with something other than naked triumph. “Proud Mary” is the penultimate song of Act I, and Warren performs it as a broken puppet of a woman, who downs 50 Valium tablets because she has no other means of escape from her life. It is accompanied by the most harrowing of all the beatings Turner endures at Ike’s hands. Warren stands center stage in a gold fringe minidress, her face covered in blood, singing a song that won’t earn her a penny of profit. Everyone, including the audience, is complicit in this cheapening of her life.

Given the expectation that jukebox musicals be light fare — the kind that never challenges its audience too much — this decision to tie fan favorite “Proud Mary” to the worst moments in Turner’s life feels brave, even risky. The audience is left quietly shuffling at intermission.

Daniel J. Watts’ Ike is violent and villainous, a wounded soul who self-medicates with womanizing, drugs and alcohol abuse, but he’s also a terrifically handsome charmer.

Manuel Harlan

Turner, 80, is a producer on the show, and while Tina is very much her story, it never feels as though she’s using it as a means of score-settling with her abusive ex-husband. “I don’t know if I could ever forgive all that Ike ever did to me,” Turner said in a recent profile. Ike, in this show, never fully recovers from the betrayal of having his greatest and most influential hit, “Rocket 88,” stolen from him. Though Ike wrote and recorded the song in 1951, with his band, the Kings of Rhythm, “Rocket 88” was released as a track recorded by his saxophonist, Jackie Brenston. In “Tina,” Ike keeps carrying this enduring hurt, then builds on it. Both Turner and Ike, the show reveals, came from humble backgrounds in which racialized violence inflicted on black men, such as lynching, gets absorbed and transmuted onto black women and children. Tina doesn’t excuse such violence, but it provides valuable context for how it arises.

“Don’t you see they trying to erase me, Tina?” Ike asks at one desperate juncture when Turner is meeting with producer Phil Specter. “From the record? Phil, all of ‘em. All of ‘em! Now you. You promised Tina, you promised me you’d never leave.”

Daniel J. Watts’ Ike is violent and villainous, a wounded soul who self-medicates with womanizing, drugs and alcohol abuse, but he’s also a terrifically handsome charmer. Watts is one of the few men I’ve witnessed who actually carries a conk well, rather than allowing the conk to wear him. When Tina first meets with Specter and it becomes clear that Specter only wants her and not Ike, Watts visibly shrinks into the pitiable, vituperative form that’s so recognizable in abusers.

Adrienne Warren as Tina Turner and Daniel J. Watts as Ike Turner star in Tina.

Manuel Harlan

None of the decisions of Hall, Prins and Ketelaa, risky or otherwise, though, would translate well without the combination of Warren and director Phyllida Lloyd. Lloyd, who directed both the Broadway Mamma Mia! show and the film adaptation, blends Turner’s famous commitment to Buddhism with the spirituality of the southern black church where she first began singing. The spirits of Nutbush return throughout the show as sources of strength in Turner’s most trying times. They are the voices in her head, the ones that materialize with the invocation of the Buddhist chant “nam-myoho-renge-kyo.”

Warren, who perfected the title role during a run on London’s West End before the show moved to New York, has clearly studied her subject. She’s aced Turner’s smoky delivery and added her own Tennessee warble to it. As the show progresses, Warren comes to fully inhabit the slinky, sexy confidence that can come from self-defining rebirth after leaving an abusive partner. But what’s truly impressive is how much Warren earns, and gets to revel in, the cloak of pop stardom and the adulation that accompanies it. When it’s time for the curtain call and Warren’s encore, in which she invites the audience to get up, clap and sing along with her, Warren holds every soul in the Lunt-Fontanne in her hands. She’s playing a rock star, but she’s also one in her own right.

It’s that specific combination that makes Tina so affecting in comparison to Summer: The Donna Summer Musical or Rock of Ages. (Ain’t Too Proud suffers from another factor, which is that it’s telling the story of a singing group that’s continually switching out members with replacements and gets bogged down in the details of doing so.) Warren and Turner feel equal onstage — melded together, yet distinct. When Warren eventually departs the role, she’ll relinquish the title of Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll, but it shouldn’t feel like a loss. She’s already crowned herself.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.