The publicity material for “Tina — the Tina Turner Musical” actually doesn’t use the phrase “starring Adrienne Warren.” It should. And it will. Hitherto unknown in the U.K., the actress was the Tony-nominated standout in Broadway’s “Shuffle Along,” but Warren’s knockdown performance here not only elevates an otherwise routine bio-musical into a triumph, it’s a slam-dunk for every upcoming awards ceremony.
Putting director Phyllida Lloyd in charge of turning Tina’s life story into a theatrical evening was a smart move. Not only is she a highly regarded director of theater and opera classics from her London/Broadway “Mary Stuart” to her recent Donmar Warehouse/St. Ann’s Warehouse all-female Shakespeare trilogy, she and her designer Mark Thompson created the modern-era trend for jukebox musicals with “Mamma Mia!” – which, 18 years later, is still playing in London. Unfortunately, where she had free fictional rein with Abba’s back-catalog, here she’s hidebound by truth.
Lloyd and Thompson have elected to keep their fairly bare stage open, with dressed walls being lowered or raised to ease changes into multiple locations from hotels to dressing rooms, stages and recording studios as the show walks chronologically and methodically through the life. Further atmosphere comes, with varying degrees of success, with era-defining projections across the back wall from deliberately blurred specific locations to more interesting abstract uses of video and light projections.
Part of the problem for the production team is that, for all its terrible pain — brought laudibly and unflinchingly to the surface, thanks in no small part to Kate Waters’ fight direction — Turner’s journey is defiant but predictable. Lowly beginnings, raw talent, singing as a route out of poverty, trapped by an abusive manager/husband, fraught escape, fighting to re-establish herself: it’s a dramatic trajectory straight out of the showbiz playbook.
The best bits of Katori Hall’s disappointing book — it’s occasionally theatrical but rarely dramatic — come in the scenes where she manages to weave otherwise clunky exposition in and out of the lyrics of one of the well-known songs. That’s certainly the case with the opening, depicting Tina’s impoverished Southern childhood via a gathering of the families working the cotton plantation in Nutbush, a scene that morphs into a gospel version of “Nutbush City Limits.” From there, everything fast-forwards efficiently through Turner’s life, from the fraught childhood where she’s abandoned by her mother (Madeline Appiah) to meeting and impressing Ike Turner, who changes her name from Anna Mae Bullock to Tina Turner.
It’s no one’s fault that none of this is surprising, but the compression of a long career into neatly parceled scenes means that everyone except Tina is reduced to one-dimension. Kobna Holbrook-Smith, a thoughtful and versatile actor, gives his all as vicious, self-centered Ike, but since the production cannot afford the time to dwell on detail or contradictions, he’s reduced to playing him as The Furious Bad Guy.
Characterization throughout is flattened. Tina’s new manager Rhonda is long-suffering; 27-year-old Roger, who masterminds her comeback, is wacky; and worst, Erwin Bach, the record company exec who saves and marries her, plays his every line as awkwardly unhip as his chinos. He’s Swiss, by the way, since actor Gerard McCarthy’s accent won’t help you locate him.
At the end of the first act, blood-strewn Tina stands at the front of the stage and quietly begs a motel manager to let her stay despite having no money. The atmosphere is suddenly tense and charged because Warren is no longer talking to another actor, she’s addressing the audience. Suddenly, instead of witnessing another bald playlet doling out information, the audience becomes complicit, having to imagine the manager. It’s a vivid, intense moment — but it makes you realize everything that’s been missing before.
And yet, none of this matters. From the second she takes over from the child actor playing her young self, Warren ignites the theater. Vocally, she has everything from Turner’s low, cat-like purr best heard in the lamenting verse of “Private Dancer” (one of the show’s strongest sequences) up through the blowtorch power of the rock-steady middle register to the flame-thrower rasp and roar of the head voice, all coupled to a machine-gun vibrato that shakes the walls of the building. And, in case you wondered, her scissoring legs capture Turner’s every fierce and frantic move.
But her stunningly powerful, extraordinarily controlled performance is way beyond mere perfect impersonation. Eyes flashing in hope or burning with determination, the stage burns with both her energy and the spirit she’s channeling. And she has complete command of her character’s pain and pathos and, best of all, the stillness when needed. So much so, that by the end, as she faces 180,000 people in Brazil and Bruno Poet’s lighting lets rip and turns the auditorium into a rock stadium, Warren has converted the entire audience into cheering fans. You find yourself not just won over into utterly believing she is Tina Turner, but sharing in her absolute joy in performing.