"River Deep: A Tribute to Tina Turner" is not just another jukebox tuner. Only one of Turner's songs actually appears in this musical tribute from writer-director-choreographer Gabrielle Lansner. Otherwise, the show features an original score as it pays vague, occasionally charming homage to a rock icon.
Give it this much: “River Deep: A Tribute to Tina Turner” is not just another jukebox tuner. Only one of Turner’s songs — and an obscure one at that, “In Your Wildest Dreams” — actually appears in this musical tribute from writer-director-choreographer Gabrielle Lansner. Otherwise, the show features an original score as it pays vague, occasionally charming homage to a rock icon.
Yet despite all the songs by composer Philip Hamilton, it would be hard to call this production a musical. It’s more of a movement piece — Lansner’s background is in dance — with legit accessories. Choreography does most of the work as we follow a loose chronology of Turner’s life. Numbers are often either wordless or feature singers standing with the onstage band while the ensemble perform elaborate routines.
Occasional monologues, adapted from Turner’s autobiography, “I, Tina,” hit the high points of the performer’s story — from her childhood in Tennessee to her escape from abusive husband Ike — but never stop the shimmying for long.
At its best, Lansner’s work is gaudy fun. Like Hamilton’s score, her choreography references the energetic R&B of the ’60s. One is often reminded of Turner’s famous “Proud Mary” moves as the seven-woman troupe — all wearing short, spangly dresses — stomp, slide and bounce their way through numbers with titles like “Dancing to the Rhythm and Blues.”
Stephanie Berger’s projections only increase the campy energy. During most numbers, massive pictures of the dancers appear on three upstage screens. Sometimes we see them frozen in laughter, tossing back their hair in a jaunty way. Sometimes, we just see a close-up of a shoe, a leg or a bit of shiny fabric. The images change so frequently that they can distract from the live performers, but they always provide a spirit of over-the-top showmanship.
The peak of this liveliness, reached just after Tina (Pat Hall) recalls how Ike became abusive, is “Treat You Like a Lady,” a would-be girl group classic whose memorable chorus and tightly synchronized choreography seem ready for “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It’s refreshing that in this number, the cast sing and dance simultaneously.
Even though some of the women make better dancers than thesps, they all commit with a spirit that’s most infectious when body and voice are employed together.
For her part, Hall makes a solid, if reserved impression as Tina. Her monologues are overly restrained considering their folksy language, but she provides that missing pep with her dancing. In a wordless solo piece called “Tina’s Chant,” for instance, her lithe form clearly communicates a woman’s decision to become self-sufficient.
Still, dance can only take a story so far. With so little text, “River Deep” is never more than a superficial glance at a fascinating life. So many details are quickly referenced and then dropped — a suicide attempt gets three sentences; Turner’s children get one — that one leaves the show hungry for more information.
By giving us a sense of what it doesn’t address, the production also highlights its own shallowness. It’s pleasant, yes, to hear platitudes about how admirable Tina Turner is, particularly when that easy praise comes with dancing. But “River Deep” could be better than a trifle if it had more to say about its subject’s life.