Naomi Rodgers as Tina Turner. Photo courtesy of MurphyMade
I was never fortunate enough to have seen Tina Turner perform in person. For those like me, “Tina -- The Tina Turner Musical” has to come close. A bubbling cauldron of passion and stamina, Naomi Rodgers, star of the national touring production of this Broadway show, channels the late, great Rock and Roll Hall of Famer for two and a half crowd-pleasing hours.
Broadway San Diego is presenting this tour, which comes to town only two months after Turner’s passing at age 83. It’s a visceral biographical musical written by Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins and a worthy companion to the 1993 film “What’s Love Got To Do With It” that starred Angela Bassett.
Of course there are the second act songs – “What’s Love …”, “Private Dancer,” “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” “(Simply) The Best” – that defined Turner’s emotional comeback and solo career success, and Rodgers’ performance of them, backed by a rocking band that encores with a blistering two-song concert.
In large part because of the ’93 film, Turner’s history is well known: her early life in Tennessee as Anna Mae Bullock, her singing in a Baptist church, her separation from her parents; meeting Ike Turner and becoming the star of his act (which both pleased and infuriated him); suffering 16 years of physical and emotional abuse in her marriage to him; going from indebtedness and despair to a resurrected career on her own that would establish her as the “Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
It’s all there in this show, and it’s a story that takes a long while to tell. Subplots stretch it out, especially in the first act, such as Tina’s romance with a member of Ike’s band (Gerard M. Williams) and her estrangement from her mother (Roz White). No sensitivities are spared (nor should they be) in depicting the physical abuse Ike (Roderick Lawrence) inflicts on Tina. It’s less graphic than in the movie, but no less shocking, even though we know it’s coming.
The highlight of Act One is the re-creation of Tina’s performance with the Ikettes of “Proud Mary.” It’s clear that Rodgers studied that famous footage. She’s got every movement, inflection and mannerism down pat.
While Act Two includes a couple of broad turns – Geoffrey Kidwell as Phil Spector and Zachary Freier-Harrison as Aussie manager Roger Davies – music for the most part transcends the melodrama. Rodgers is simply the best in the second half of the show when she can just let loose as The Legend.
“Tina” is a more thoughtfully constructed musical than perhaps it gets credit for. The theatrical integration of Turner’s past with the unfolding story, periodically returning to the stage the figures from her childhood, enhance the thrust of the storytelling. The interruption of the “Proud Mary” performance with Ike’s outbursts accentuates the control he sought to wield over her. The deathbed scene in Act Two with her mother, in which Zelma insists that Tina owes Ike gratitude for making her what she became, avoids cliché.
Make no mistake, however: “Tina” is such an entertaining show because of Naomi Rodgers’ dedication to the role and her prodigious talent (and energy!). Tina Turner’s are not easy high-heeled shoes to step into.
Lawrence is asked to swagger and rage as Ike, and face it: His despicable character is not going to be a crowd favorite. It’s always awkward when the hard-working actor comes out at the curtain call to be acknowledged and some in the audience boo because of who he, she or they is portraying.
A shout-out to White for a genuine performance as Tina’s mother, to Williams for his silken vocal sweetness on “Let’s Stay Together” and to young Ayvah Johnson, a charmer and dazzler as childhood Tina.
When this musical opened on Broadway four years ago, Tina Turner joined the cast onstage afterward and told the audience “I’ve never been as happy as I am now.”
That’s the best review any tribute show can get.
“Tina – The Tina Turner Musical” runs through July 30 at the Civic Theatre, downtown.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.