What spares this show from becoming a “juke box musical” or some tribute band’s concert is a simple choice: Director Phyllida Lloyd lets characters other than Tina perform a few of Ms. Turner’s songs. The effect is startling.
As Act I wields off classics like “Nutbush City Limits,” “A Fool in Love,” and “Don’t Turn Around,” it does so with a fury that suggests the next two hours will be stuffed with every conceivable recording Ms. Turner has ever done. The only question is if the actress playing Tina (Adrienne Warren) will be able to finish the show without collapsing. That seems to be the drama until, suddenly, Tina is about to break-up with Raymond Hill (Gerald Cesar), a saxophonist in Ike Turner’s band. As she turns away to leave him, he reacts: “I-I-I…. I’m so in love with you…. Whatever you want to do…. It’s all right with meeee….”
A smile. Tina stops to listen and, in hearing the first stanza of “Let’s Stay Together,” stands in place long enough to let the song breathe. The audience breathes too. People finally sit back and relax. Maybe they remember the first time they heard the melody and how they responded themselves. Tina returns to Raymond and is beaming now too. He’s an avatar for the audience. As the lyrics slip from his lips, people sense the invitation. They’re no longer just being sung at; they can sing along too.
Ms. Lloyd builds on this with something equally unexpected. In a scene where Ike Turner (Daniel J. Watts) is either high or drunk, he rips the belt from around his waist and whips Tina with it. Finishing with her, he traps Tina’s oldest son Craig (Matthew Griffin) behind a chair and welts him up too. A mumbling pause ensues until Ike regains his composure. When he comes around, he says something about “not being himself.” Continuing on, he suddenly pleads out the first verse of “Be Tender with Me Baby,” a number you’d expect Tina or Craig to be doing instead: “You got the right to tell me it’s all over…. It isn’t like me to be beggin’ you…. Don’t let go…. Don’t let go…. Just stay with me another day….”
Sung from an abuser’s perspective, the song is completely upended. Once recorded as a loving ballad, Ms. Turner’s original gets poisoned with brutality. It forces the audience deep into Ike’s psyche. And how do they react to this villain of the show who doubles as the villain in Ms. Turner’s real life too? With empathy for real Ike Turner? With disdain after a favorite tune is imbued with damaging subtext? Regardless, it’s a challenging dilemma to be presented.
Elsewhere, however, Ms. Lloyd isn’t as demanding. Her choices are simply intended to be heartwarming.
In Act II, for instance, because Tina decides to go to Europe and record with new manager Roger Davies (Charlie Franklin), she has to release long-time assistant Rhonda Graam (Jessica Rush). Clearly hurt, Rhonda is about to storm out of Tina’s Las Vegas dressing room when she freezes. Reminiscent of the earlier scene between Raymond and Tina, Rhonda reconsiders abandoning her friend. Instead, she agrees that Roger could help revive Tina’s career. If not, she’d still take her back with “Open Arms.” It’s a sentiment the audience shares and, again, they get to express it when Rhonda stands in for them singing Ms. Turner’s hit: “It’s an old age situation…. There’s nothing to fear…. Whatever life throws at you…. Your friend is still here….”
But perhaps the most affecting performance of the show comes from Young Anna-Mae (Skye Dakota Turner), who portrays Ms. Turner as a child. Later in Act II, after Tina has gone to Europe, Roger arranges for her to audition for a record company. Before she’s scheduled to sing, however, Tina demands her new “handlers” vacate her dressing room. She’s afraid she’s losing herself among all the costumers, choreographers, and PR people Roger hired to prepare her. She wants to win or lose a deal, a contract — whatever — on her terms, but can she stick to her code? Well, out comes Young Anna-Mae. The music begins and, as she sorts through racks of pre-selected clothing, she sighs: “Everything’s gonna be all right…. Tonight.”
She’s picked out a jacket, though, an old jean jacket.
“Everything’s gonna be all right…. Tonight.”
A black leather skirt, some big, red pumps.
“No one moves…. No one grooves…”
She maneuvers to Tina.
“No one walks…. No one talks….”
She hands the outfit to her.
Triumphantly, they come together like Ms. Turner and David Bowie did on their live version of Iggy Pop’s “Tonight.” They declare:
“Everyone will be all right… Tonight….”
Tina’s going to keep doing her kind of rock n’ roll.
“Everyone will be all right… Tonight…”
And although Act II dissolves into a celebratory concert, this is one of the scenes that actually linger.