By Bill Hirschman
If you’ve ever seen a comet blazing light years away across the far reaches of the night sky, if you’ve ever wondered what that looks like only a few yards from your face, you only have to visit the Broward Center to catch the national tour of Tina.
The titular performance of Naomi Rodgers, indeed, every aspect of this musical bio about the iconic Tina Turner, feels as if a huge fireball has smashed through the backwall of the stage and is powering right through the auditorium.
Most bio-musicals, even the entertaining ones, are clumsily constructed from a dramatic standpoint to be a greatest hits revue of some musician or group whose very name will guarantee an appreciative audience.
But this is different: From its insightful script to the staging/choreography to the multi-layered Acting of nearly the entire company to the choice and placements of musical numbers, this depiction of the arc of a life journey is superior to 90 percent of similar efforts.
The music catalog here obviously contains some of Tina’s greatest hits, but when they are not pinpointing the time in which they were recorded, they are used out of context to underscore something emotional happening in her life. For instance, Bill Withers’ classic 1972 “Let’s Stay Together,” which Tina covered in 1983, is inserted here as a duet between Tina and her second major lover saxophonist Raymond Hill occurring likely in the late 1950s. But its use is a perfect echo of the moment.
As first-rate as every aspect delivers, it requires a central talent who grabs the audience whether crooning a quiet opening that evolves into
“River Deep-Mountain High,” blasting out “What’s Love Got to Do With It” or convincingly in dialogue scenes capturing the anger, humiliation and rebellion in a 16-year marriage fraught with inexcusable physical, mental and emotional abuse.
This production has all that in the incandescent Rodgers, and presumably in the other actress taking turns, Zurin Villanueva. (How the gorgeous talented Adrienne Warren managed to do eight exhausting shows a week on Broadway is a mystery.)
Whether Rodgers is exploding sound into the auditorium, dancing with precision at about 3000 rpm, exuding sensuality, clearly projecting the fear and courage in the dramatic scenes, her performance of angst and joy nearly exceeds a writer’s ability to capture.
It’s a huge danger when any theater piece tries to capture a person who the audience has been watching for most of their lives. In fact, while Rodgers certainly evokes the spirit and image of Tina, she wisely doesn’t try to do a cabaret impressionist’s mimicing. Her voice does echo the special qualities of Tina’s gravely vibrating sound and the change in Tina’s voice as she moved from soul to rock n’ roll. But most fans in the audience won’t care that it isn’t a Memorex duplicate.
One of the evening’s strengths, besides the emotion-eliciting and memory –stimulating music, is the script. The book by American playwright Katori Hall (The Mountaintop) with the Dutch duo Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins has a solid dramatic arc, which for much of the evening seems narratively fluid even though it’s really a series of episodic vignettes.
It gets a tiny bit thin in the second act, but the audience long ago has been won over as the small child Anna Mae Bullock deals with the abandonment of her parents, her bonding with her grandmother, her hooking up with Ike, leaving him after 16 years, going through a difficult period finding her own sound while raising children, and then her emergence as a world-class entertainer.
But the creative team is canny. Dor instance, they have Ike and Tina get about three-quarters of the way through a fiery rendition of “Proud Mary” that has the audience clapping along. But an argument between them cuts it off. But don’t fear, this is smart: The last song in the show’s two-song post-curtain call encores is, you guessed it – giving the entire evening the closure it demanded.
Throughout, it contends that Tina’s life and her music was influenced by her difficult upbringing, the gospel music she first sang in church, her African roots. At crucial times, her pre-teen self and her beloved grandmother re-appear in crucial crossroads as inspiration, admonishment and encouragement.
It spares nothing in its depiction of complex and difficult relationships – not just with Ike, but also the difficult lifelong relations with her mother after the woman initially abandoned her and then begrudgingly gave her a home base in St. Louis.
The original production that started in London and moved to New York was directed by the veteran Phyllida Lloyd (everything from Shakespeare to Mamma Mia!), and stunning choreography by Anthony Van Laast that surpasses the adjective kinetic. The costuming by Mark Thompson reflects more than a half-century of style changes. On Broadway, there were 180 wigs used and 430 costumes. Doubtless, a similar number is in use here.
Special praise is due Nicholas Skilbeck who gets the title musical supervisor, but in addition to molding the performances, was the arranger and worked with orchestrator Ethan Popp. They kept the crucial sound of the recognizable music, but enhanced it immeasurably by inserting a subtle freshness. Of course, the pounding pyrotechnic band likely audible in the Florida Keys (half of whom are local contractors) was beyond adjectives as led by Anne Shuttlesworth.
The set design is economical by the aforementioned Thompson in every sense – primarily rolled on furniture and often no set at all – but the change of scenes from a Tennessee cotton fields to London is handily achieved by slightly impressionistic blurry projections on the back wall by Jeff Sugg and an infinite array of lighting changes by Bruno Poet.
In the cast, the tall charismatic Garrett Turner
nails the mercurial needy abusive Ike in all his complexities. We never forgive Ike or excuse him, but Garrett Turner allows you to see the complex creature inside.
Most everyone else in the cast slips in and out of the ensemble, but some are notable when they emerge to play the role of someone in her life, including Parris Lewis as her sister Alline, Taylor A. Blackman as Raymond, plus Roz White as her mother Zelma, and Ayvah Johnson as the adorable young Anna Mae.
So in the Broward Center lobby, a few signs have been posted that warn no photography or recording (which was copiously ignored during the finale). But also it warned “Audience members disturbing other patrons by singing along may be removed from the theater.”
Opening night, the crowd respected the admonition, but in the two-song curtain call numbers, Rodgers not only encouraged them, but the crowd delivered their thank you by becoming a full-throated back-up group.
Tina plays through Jan. 29 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale, as part of the Broadway Across America-Fort Lauderdale. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Visit BrowardCenter.org or call (954) 462-0222. Running time approximately 2 hours, 45 minutes with a 15-minute intermission. Prices range from $49 to $140.