Broadway’s jukebox musicals generally lure us with the promise of lots of beloved radio hits. If the story is interesting, it’s a bonus. Jersey Boys and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical turned out to have surprising and fascinating stories to offer on top of a gold mine of great songs. With Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, the formula is reversed: We all know her personal story, and it’s tremendously inspiring. Yet her song catalogue is thin, and she wrote very little of it. She had only a few early soul hits, with her impresario-abuser-husband Ike Turner, then enjoyed her biggest successes in the 1980s with bland factory-processed corporate soft rock manufactured to provide tranquil background sounds for the thoughts of soccer moms on their way to Penney’s.
Turner’s dolorous struggle to achieve independence is the heart of this musical, and knowing that it’ll all turn out fine makes her suffering more bearable — in case you didn’t know about her comeback, the show begins in the Eighties, with Turner about to perform solo for a huge audience. If Aretha was the queen of soul, Tina is at least its duchess. Mapping out her rise, fall, and rise makes for an engaging, frequently emotionally powerful, evening. Her resilience, combined with the extravagantly entertaining performance of the actress playing her, Adrienne Warren, more than makes up for the mediocrity of some of the songs.
Like most pop stars, Turner, born Anna Mae Bullock in a sharecropper family in Tennessee, gained notice early, as she was singing in small clubs. Anna Mae had all the usual vulnerabilities to talent hawks (youth, lack of sophistication about contracts, eagerness to get a career started) plus one: Ike. Ike Turner (played with disquieting menace by Daniel J. Watts) was a regional band leader in East St. Louis and a musician who even then was known for his pink Cadillac. He realized she could be his ticket to the big time. Since her talent dwarfed his, he understood he had to control all access to her, so he made her his employee. She developed into an electrifying stage performer while the world knew nothing about the beatings he gave her. Thanks to Ike, the show is at times hard to watch: He begins threatening her almost immediately after he signs her up, when he throws a cymbal at her after she makes some creative suggestions, and to exert total dominance, he chases off her boyfriend Raymond (Gerald Caesar) and pressures her into marrying him. What makes the show bearable is knowing that Tina will escape Ike and achieve far more without him.
As staged by Phyllida Lloyd, who is possibly best known for directing the movie version of Mamma Mia!, pain and artistry are intertwined throughout the show: “Let’s Stay Together,” which Turner recorded as a single in the Eighties, is a duet with her and Raymond, sung in the shadow of their likely forced breakup. The centerpiece of the first act is — how could it be otherwise? — “Proud Mary,” presented as a montage of Turner’s ebullience performing on stage and her anguish backstage, postcards from 16 years in hell. Warren plays both sides of the character with authority, shifting gears effortlessly between cringing before Ike’s fists and ruling the stage with a joy that goes well beyond the dutiful. Her voice is preposterously rich; the wattage of her smile is solar.
Warren’s brilliance brings up the question of whether the art of soul singers can be informed or even strengthened by actual experience of suffering. Would Aretha have sounded the same if she had been born to a dentist and an obstetrician in Connecticut and trained at Exeter? Moreover, even Tina’s physical abuse has submerged Southern sources: A black man born in Mississippi in 1931, Ike Turner was a product of the humiliations of the Jim Crow South and took his rage out on his wife. There is some mystical linkage of these deep, dark historical forces and the sound of soul, and Tina explores it tenderly. It’s impossible not to root for Tina in Tina. That’s true regardless of whether you love her music, which in her most successful iteration, in the Eighties, contained about as much soul as the Microsoft Corporation.
As with other jukebox musicals, moreover, Tina suffers from thematic contrivance: songs that don’t tell stories, and don’t say much of anything, come off awkwardly when they’re intended to advance the plot. Still, let’s say we take “Simply the Best” as Tina’s paean to herself; would that be out of line? Rock has often gotten lost in translation to the Broadway stage, but this is a rare example of a so-so rock hit that is much improved by the adaptation: resolutely banal on the radio, it makes for a blowout climactic number as Lloyd brings the orchestra out on the stage to create jubilation in the theater and a well-earned career valedictory for an artist who remains hale at 79, and recently caused pandemonium on the Rialto when she attended the premiere of this show. Take that, Ike.