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Tina: The Tina Turner Musical brings the life of an icon to the stage

Tina: The Tina Turner Musical | Crown Theatre | Until 6th April | ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Back in 1993 I bought a ticket to see Tina Turner when she played at the Perth Entertainment Centre.

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I wasn’t a massive fan of the singer but knew that she had a reputation for delivering a great live show and it was probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Turner live. While she did return to Perth a few years later, this was my only experience of seeing her on stage.

Like many Australians the music of Tina Turner has been a constant in life. I have an inherited the 7-inch vinyl of Nutbush City Limits. It came out the year of my birth and knowing the dance really should be a compulsory part of the Australian citizenship test.

Turner’s mid-80’s comeback with her Private Dancer record had been a big Countdown moment, and her subsequent albums had filled the radio airwaves. We all know her hits like Steamy Windows, We Don’t Need Another Hero, Typical Male, What You Get Is What You See, and I Don’t Wanna Lose You. 

In 1993’s the soundtrack to the film about her life brought some of her earlier tunes back into the public consciousness, and it was at this point I saw Tina Turner live.

She was unbelievable, a lightning bolt of energy on stage, her distinctive voice a mega-blast of sound, she left her young backing dancers for dead, and although you were among thousands of people in a massive auditorium – you felt like Tina Turner was performing just for you.

A few months later I watched the film about her life where Angela Bassett plays Turner. For many people, who have not experienced domestic violence, Tina Turner’s story was our most intimate introduction to coercive behaviour and abuse. We also learned about her determination and persistence as she fought against ageism and sexism in the music industry.

When it was announced that a musical was being developed about the singer’s life, I wondered if it would work. We already know her music, we already know her life story, did we need a musical?

Turner was involved its development and saw its 2018 West End premiere, giving it her seal of approval. The show has since been performed on Broadway, in Germany and Spain, but Australian audiences are potentially the toughest for the cast to face. Australia adores Tina Turner.

Ruva Ngwenya is sensational as Tina Turner, delivering a performance that carefully avoids caricature and impersonation. Ngwenya is a brilliant singer in her own right, and she saves moments where she moves and sounds precisely like Turner for the show’s final scenes, it’s eerie when she makes the full transformation.

The performer is on stage for almost every moment of the show, a marathon undertaking. She successfully portrays Tina Turner from her teenage years through to the singer being in her late 40s. Ruva Ngwenya many talents are on full display, it’s the kind of performance that would garner a Helpmann Award – if only we still had them.

Tim Omaji, who has really found a place in the world of musical theatre, nails the role of Ike Turner. Turner was a despicable person, and it must be challenging to inhabit his life, but Omaji’s take on the part is well-rounded and avoids stepping into villainous territory.

Nadia Komazec is captivating as manager and friend Rhonda Graam, Ibinabo Jack makes her mark as mother Zelma Bullock, and Deni Gordon appears as Grandmother Georgeanna. The real stars of the show through are the amazing ensemble who take on many of the smaller roles and create an array of visually dramatic scenes.

The show’s prologue sees Turner moments before she’s about to head out on stage in front of a massive audience. She pauses and begins reciting the Buddhist chant that became integral to her life, and as an audience we’re taken back to her childhood in Nutbush Tennessee. On Highway Number Nineteen, where you go to town on Saturdays, and church every Sunday.

We follow young Anna-Mae Bullock as her mother leaves with her older sister to live in St Louis, leaving her to be cared for by her grandmother. Oddly the song performed at this point in the show is Don’t Turn Around, a tune best known as a 90’s hit for Ace of Base. While Turner was the first to record the song, it’s a non-album b-side to her 1986 hit Typical Male, I wondered if many audience members were wondering why this slice of Scandinavian pop was appearing in Tennessee in the late 1940s.

You can imagine the meetings they must have had, and problems pondered when writing this musical. Which songs from Turner’s massive catalogue match the narrative points in her story? Will the audience get bored if not enough of her well known songs appear in the first half of her story? Do we need to make sure all her hits are in the show?

We follow the singer’s life as she meets is reunited with her mother as a teenager, she then meets band leader Ike Turner, who invites her to headline his revue, changing her name to Tina Turner. Their soul outfit works hard, but Ike and Tina’s relationship is filled with abuse and domestic violence, something the musical does not skip over – it’s hard to watch.

The story works in some of their best-known songs from the early 1960’s including Its Gonna Work Out Fine and A Fool in Love.  Later hits from Turner’s discography like her cover of Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together, Sly and the Family Stone’s I Wanna Take You Higher and 80’s hit Better Be Good To Me are woven into the narrative.

We sit in on the recording session with Phil Spector as they record River Deep Mountain High, a moment where Tina Turner’s star began to outshine that of her husband. Spector coldly telling Ike Turner his talents are not needed on the recording.

The duos career reaches its pinnacle with their cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Proud Mary, but behind the scenes their personal life was filled with drug use, violent abuse and coercive control. In 1976 Turner famously turned up in the lobby of a hotel in Dallas with only cents to her name, seeking refuge.

The second half of the show charts Turners attempts to rebuild her career and get a new record deal. Opening up with a dramatic version of Private Dancer we find Turner working with manager Rhonda Gramm to make a new start.

An energetic rendition of The Tramps Disco Inferno is a moment of hilarity, that brings to life Turner’s years of performing in casinos and nightclubs. Things take a turn when Turner meets Roger Davies, the Australian manager who’d breathed new life into Olivia Newton-John’s career.

Davies takes over as her manager and encourages her to put together a new demo. While Turner wants to make her mark as a rock ‘n’ roll artist, Davies encourages her to work with English producer Martyn Ware, the boffin behind synthesizer band’s The Human League and Heaven 17.

The scenes where Turner meets Ware and songwriter Terry Britten is one of the show’s comedy highlights. It doesn’t go to plan through, she completes hates the song they’ve slated for her comeback – What’s Love Got To Do With It. 

At the same time Turner meets young record marketing executive Erwin Bach, and she finds the love of her life. Some artistic license in taken suggesting Turner and Bach met in London in the early 1980’s, when in truth they met in Germany a few years later. Turner’s unease at her fast-changing life is illustrated through her version of I Can’t Stand the Rain. 

As Turner gets ready to showcase her new work to record executives, Tonight, a song originally by Iggy Pop which Turner recorded as a duet with David Bowie, is utilised. The singer’s attempts to relaunch her career through are stymied by racism and ageism who say there’s no place a black woman in her 40’s in the music industry.

History has shown that Turner proved them wrong, going on to become one of the biggest recording artists of the century. We reach the crescendo of her story with We Don’t Need Another Hero, before returning to where the story started – Tina Turner backstage before one of the biggest shows of her career.

While the biggest hits of her career are all included the construction of this story misses out on many of Tina Turner’s greatest hits. Maybe it’s a choice of storytelling over shoehorning in the hits, but when you call up a Tina Turner playlist on your trip home you” be treated to many songs not in the show.

Tina – The Tina Turner Musical, is not just the story of an adored famous singer. It’s about women having a space in the world, combatting sexism, ageism and racism, and how no matter at what stage of life you’re at – dreams of success and love can still come true.

See Tina – The Tina Musical at Crown Theatre.

OIP Staff


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