Review by Carly Fisher
Seeing Tina: The Musical announced as the next international bio-blockbuster musical to come to Australia didn’t feel like much of a surprise. Australian audiences hold a special soft spot for jukebox musicals, particularly when they centre around the music of someone they know and love…and know and love Tina we do! The iconic songs, the famous hair and the electrifying dance moves, few Aussie adults would be unable to belt out one of Tina’s anthems on request.
I first saw this musical in London in 2018 and if not for Covid, I am confident this show would have hit our shores even sooner. Though the show didn’t grab me amongst the high calibre collection of other West End shows I saw whilst in London, I was certainly eager still to see it in Sydney and give it another go.
What fell short for me the first time, continued to fall…if not plummet. The book of the show, created by Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins, is its greatest letdown unfortunately. Not only does the show try to thematically cover too much in too short a time, but perhaps its greatest offense for me is that it spends so long making Tina a victim, that it forgets to leave itself time to show her as the powerhouse that she is.
Finding her independence, taking a chance on herself as a solo artist and essentially starting her career again in her mid-late 40s, Tina has been the epitome of a strong independent woman for over 40 years…nearly half her life! And yet it’s only in what feels like the last 10 minutes that we get to see Tina unencumbered by the people and traumas of her past.
The show has a large number of scenes that are uncomfortable to watch but I do not see this as something to critique. Not every musical is or should be happy-go-lucky. In fact, the rawness of this show is one of its strengths. That said, I don’t feel that there is adequate warning for audiences heading into this show - yes, you will get to hear the anthems that you know and love but this is not a shiny concert. You have to go to some pretty deep places along the way to get to those songs.
And the songs are great - for many, they’ll be the sole reason you attended the show and for those people, you won’t be disappointed. There is an enormous amount of music in this show but led by Christina Polimos this huge score is in good hands. The musicians are tight and seem to only get better and better as the show progresses and the show finds its way through some of the most famous of Tina’s hits.
For me, I was interested to see what the Australian cast had to offer. I’ve certainly been quoted in many of my reviews as being a major fan of Australian ensembles - I continue to believe that we have some of the strongest ensemble cast members in the world in our Aussie talent pools. The entire cast of Tina had much to be proud of but I will admit, when Ruva Ngwenya is on the stage, it is hard to look elsewhere.
I can’t say that this production changed me into a big fan of this particular musical.
I can say that I am extremely grateful to the producers for putting it on and for showing Australia what happens when you put Ngwenya in the lead role…magic happens.
Ngwenya is single handedly the reason that this show is as enjoyable as it is. Her artistry is so beautifully crafted both in scenes and in her vocal progression through the show. I have no idea how she has obtained the stamina that she has but my gosh she must have done a hell of a lot of work (and work outs) to get to be that fit! Her execution of the choreography is on point in every single routine. There is not a single note out of place. Every emotion - and this show drags its lead through a lot of them - is authentic and considered. I can not sing her praises highly enough. I hope we continue to see her take on many more leads in many more shows because she is captivating and extremely deserving evidently of the opportunity.
Jayme-Lee Hanekom as Alline really stood out for me. Additionally, Hanekom takes on multiple other roles through the production as an Ikette and in the Ensemble and in each role, the character differentiation and unique facial expressions made her the one to watch. A truly beautiful performer.
John O’Hara certainly proved a scene stealer too - in the best possible way - with the most fabulous execution of comic timing on offer in this show. Again, the immense consideration into the character work was excellent.
Tim Omaji gives a very solid performance as Ike Turner. Though an extremely unlikeable character, the sincerity with which Omaji portrays Ike ensures that he is never an unlikeable actor.
A final individual shout out has to go to one of the youngest but most memorable in the cast, Amara Kavaliku as young Anna-Mae. What a rising star!! A beautiful voice, a stunning smile, excellent command of the choreography and stage presence way beyond her size or years, Kavaliku is one to watch! As well as her fantastic performance, I have to say a big thank you to her too for what was probably the most beautiful moment of the night for me. When the audience lept to its feet at the end for a deserved standing ovation, the excitement in Amara's eyes and that glimmer of passion, motivation and pure joy...that's why I go see theatre!
The Theatre Royal is the perfect house for this production - grand but more intimate than the Lyric or Capitol and I think that the performance is richer for that closeness. It is one of the best uses of the space I think we have seen so far since its reopening.
When the show finds its stride and you are in that concert like that state, it is simply great (I know…you thought I was going to go for a hard pun there and say simply the best…it took great restraint not to). Unfortunately, that really only happens sporadically through the show and then climaxes for an epic last 10 minutes. Most of the show needs to be reconsidered when you consider it critically. In particular, an uncomfortable racist line about cremation in Act II needs to go - read the room!
If you’re looking for a fun girl’s night out (which it seemed many around me in the audience were), it’s hard to tell you if this is the show or not. There is a lot of trauma to go through - some well represented, some not - to get to the bangers and yet, when you get there, you do seem to walk out of the theatre on such a high because of the epic finale numbers that perhaps you forget about the hardship getting there.
What I will say is that if you like Tina’s music, you are not going to be disappointed by this portrayal of it. In fact, I think this is the closest to Tina many of us will get to see any more.
The show isn’t great. But Tina is rightfully iconic and even though the show doesn’t soar, you still walk out clear that Tina was and is a true legend.
And Ruva Ngwenya, you too, are a legend.
Image Credit: Daniel Boud