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Review: Tina: The Tina Turner Musical at The Festival Theatre

Review by Lisa Lanzi


Attaching a live concert segment to the end of a musical biopic is a sure-fire way to get an audience up and grooving to some classic Tina Turner songs, and incidentally staying on their feet for the bows and ovations.  It was a thrilling reference to Tina’s huge, record-breaking 1988 ‘come back’ stadium gig in Brazil.  Even more enticing is the elemental star energy brought to the title role by Ruva Ngwenya as she performed alongside the excellent live band led by Musical Director Christina Polimos.  Certainly, Tina Turner has had a strong connection to Australia: a footy grand final appearance, the role and song for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, plus her clued in Aussie manager.  I suspect most Australians of a certain demographic could easily sing the choruses of any number of the Queen of Rock’s songs.


When ‘Tina’ is on stage, which is most of the tine, it is almost impossible to gaze elsewhere, such is Ngwenya’s triple-threat talent and vivacity.  This is not to take away anything from the rest of the captivating cast: the entire ensemble is consistent and skilful, radiating vitality and commitment, and some rather glorious wig fashion.  It is simply undeniable that our lead embodies with such clarity the essence of Tina Turner’s vocals, dance moves, and effervescence.  Ngwenya’s performance though is never forced or vulgar mimicry, but rather a magnificent and comprehensive homage with great dynamic shifts.  It is mind-boggling how ‘show fit’ this artist must be to do justice to the role night after night (although I’ve heard the alternate Tina, Jochebel Ohene MacCarthy, is also astonishing), and glorious to be on the receiving end of the enormous vocal range Ngwenya commands.  


Despite high praise for the cast, there is something about this musical that doesn’t quite satisfy in an dramaturgical sense.  The broad narrative follows Tina Turner’s (born Anna Mae Bullock) life from humble and disturbing origins in Nutbush, Tennessee all the way through to her re-emergence as a star under the guidance of Australian manager Roger Davies (now managing Pink).  Putting aside the stellar performances for a moment, the writing, story, and some of the dialogue progress in a clunky fashion with uneven emphases.  The majority of the story-telling, written by Pulitzer-winner Katori Hall, with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins, lingers long on the hideously abusive relationship Turner endured for sixteen years with a good deal of uncomfortable onstage fight action between Ike and Tina - a sad, possibly triggering reminder that an epidemic of domestic violence continues across the world.  This focus serves to spotlight the singer’s status as victim whereas her triumphant later decades as a strong, decisive female role model and survivor, spanning around forty years, are more fleetingly depicted within the whole.


Well-known songs like "River Deep Mountain High," "Proud Mary," "Private Dancer," and "(Simply) The Best" are interspersed within the story to loosely illustrate moments of high emotion but appear regardless of any reality-based timeline.  For example, “Private Dancer” was released in 1984 but occurs within the musical as Tina is leaving Ike, around 1976.  It is relatively easy to suspend disbelief though as the cast surges energetically through the two acts.  Others of note include Lucy Bowers as the young Anna-Mae, her singing and sass delightful, but more importantly who performs authentically and joyously in the role.  The highly accomplished Giovanni Adams takes on the difficult Ike character during the Adelaide season with gusto and presence.  As Alline, Tina’s sister, plus doubling as one of the ‘Ikettes’, the phenomenal Jayme-Lee Hanekom is another performer who commands attention with her talent and a good deal of ‘spell’.  Mat Verevis immerses himself in the persona of Roger Davies (cue another OTT wig) adding a necessary light-heartedness and comic relief.  It would be easy to name every single member of the ensemble, such was their brilliance.  I believe Australian musical supporting casts are some of the best in the world - lucky audiences!


With direction by Olivier and Tony awarded Phyllida Lloyd, the magic and pace is assisted by Mark Thompson’s eclectic mix of impressionistic and ornate sets gliding on and off as well as his spot on costuming.  Add to that the visually arresting video projection by Jeff Sugg and lighting from Bruno Poet plus live music and it is easy to be transported to Tina’s world.  Choreography by Anthony Van Laast (Mamma Mia!, Sister Act, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song and Dance) mostly fits the bill and definitely draws on Tina’s own signature moves.


If you love Tina Turner’s music and want to see a brilliant cast delivering superb performances, just go.  Most audiences won’t be troubled by any of the critiques I’ve pinpointed because it is totally possible to immerse yourself in the songs, the music and the sparkle.

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