‘Tina Turner Musical’ review: Glorious music fills a frenetically paced show

Tina Turner (Zurin Villanueva) and Ike Turner (Garrett Turner) deliver their signature song stylings in a scene from “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical.”

Matthew Murphy

It’s a tall order to condense the life of a towering diva into a stage musical, and “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” now onstage at the James M. Nederlander Theatre, makes that bold attempt with mixed results.

Casting someone who can step into that iconic fringed dress was possibly the hardest and most important part of the musical, and on that front, “Tina” knocks it out of the park.

The title role in the national touring production is shared by Ari Groover (stepping in for Naomi Rodgers) and Zurin Villanueva, the latter taking the reins on opening night. Villanueva is a megawatt star with boundless energy and an outrageously versatile voice, and she perfectly delivers Turner’s greatest hits in a way guaranteed to please the most diehard fan. 

Overall, the musical has many entertaining renditions of Turner’s songs, for the most part well-contextualized around the storyline, which begins with her childhood as Anna Mae Bullock in Nutbush, Tennessee, and ends with her rise to fame in Brazil for her first solo concert, playing to a record-breaking crowd of 180,000 fans. While Villanueva nails nearly every song perfectly, some standout numbers include “Let’s Stay Together” and an especially heart-wrenching rendition of “I Don’t Wanna Fight No More.” 

‘Tina: The Tina Turner Musical’

Tina Turner musical

When: Through April 2

Where: The James M. Nederlander Theater, 24 W. Randolph

Tickets: $49-$131

Run time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission

Info: broadwayinchicago.com

Writers Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins have constructed a serviceable storyline that runs nearly three hours, and although this run time doesn’t actually feel too long, it does feel unsatisfying. Director Phyllida Lloyd understandably keeps things moving at a breakneck clip to avoid dragging, but this strategy undercuts the gravitas of the many serious moments in the play. 

Zurin Villanueva stars as Tina Turner in the North American touring production of “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical.”

Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

Turner fans won’t find it a spoiler to say that the first half of her life was steeped in domestic violence. The musical opens with a gorgeously composed church sequence (an abrupt ending robs it of its impact) that immediately spins into a brutal depiction of early childhood trauma. Throughout the show’s first half we are repeatedly witness to too many lighting-fast, quick-cut scenes of abuse with cringeworthy, unpolished fight choreography. The shocking scenes of violence almost feel as if they are inappropriately being played for slapstick comedy.

Garrett Turner plays the charming yet villainous and abusive Ike Turner. The show’s fast pace unfortunately does not allow him adequate time to navigate his character’s rapidly changing emotions, leading towards a flatter characterization than he might otherwise be able to offer.

The second half of the production chronicles Turner’s self-actualization, and is extremely entertaining. Ann Nesby plays Gran Georgeanna (Turner’s grandmother) and delivers a beautiful duet of “Don’t Turn Around” early on. Ayvah Johnson is a delightful little girl with a voice bigger than she is as the Young Anna Mae. Throughout, there are some exceptional moments of choreography by Anthony Van Laast, including the stunning closing number. (Tip: Don’t leave the theater early!)

Anna Mae Bullock, the future Tina Turner (Zurin Villanueva), shares a tender moment with her Gran Georgeanna (Ann Nesby) in “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical.”

Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made

These amazing moments make it even more disappointing when the ensemble repeatedly just stands there limply, or does painfully unorganized and uninspired movements, including (rather bizarrely) the show’s opening number, and some truly lackluster use of umbrellas later during “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” 

Set and costume designer Mark Thompson knocks it out of the park when re-creating Turner’s wardrobe, but phones it in with set and props, creating a sparse, minimalist environment. The projections and lighting design are lovely, but Villanueva’s gigantic presence as Tina Turner demands more razzle-dazzle. Between the lack of physical movement from the cast and, for the most part, a nearly empty stage, the contrast between the actor’s intense energy and the vast nothingness surrounding her is far too sharp.

Constant sound problems on opening night were also a contributing factor to that feeling of emptiness. Actors’ microphones frequently cut out, losing lines completely. The big rock ’n’ roll sound was muted, as if the instruments and other vocalists’ mikes were set at quieter levels than that of Villanueva.

Toward the end of the show, the entire band cut loose on stage, finally matching Villanueva’s huge voice, prompting the entire audience to jump to its feet for an electrifying dance-along. (The musical might have benefited from the “Six” treatment, with the excellent band onstage for the entire show.)

Villanueva’s performance alone makes “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” an enjoyable night out. 

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