Zurin Villanueva as 'Tina Turner' in the North American touring production of TINA - THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL. Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade.
Almost everyone knows who Tina Turner, 12-time Grammy Award winner and musical icon, is. However, TINA – The Tina Turner Musical, onstage now at DPAC under the direction of Phyllida Lloyd and written by Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins, takes an up-close, personal look at her life and never shies away from its more difficult moments. In fact, the story opens with scenes from Tina’s traumatic childhood.
Of course, back then, she was still known as Anna-Mae, and the young actress, Ayvah Johnson, who portrays her does a fabulous job of aligning the audience with this starlet-in-the-making. She instantly becomes a sympathetic character that’s worth rooting for.
The fast-moving story quickly progresses to a teenage Tina, acted by a doe-eyed, bright-faced Zurin Villanueva. Viewers learn that the young heroine has been living with her loving grandmother, sweetly portrayed by Ann Nesby. And, as Gran Georgeanna sends Tina on her way to St. Louis to live with her mother, the two perform “Don’t Turn Around” in way that adds even more depth and beauty to the song. In fact, the musical’s ability to seamlessly blend Turner’s music with key moments from her real life is one of its resounding and unforgettable strengths.
This beautiful blending continues as Tina meets the man who will change her life, Ike Turner (Garrett Turner). The stern script doesn’t cover or excuse the infamous abuse he inflicts on her over the course of their relationship. Rather, it takes a painful, dark deep dive into the realities of a life that, while glamorous on the surface, was riddled with struggle. Many moments in the first act are so brutally honest that they’re hard to watch. However, scenes are included that show Ike as not so much a villain but an imperfect person, a surprisingly sympathetic touch. The fully-developed characters and unabashed portrayals of abuse elevate the story from “jukebox musical” to something truly touching, tender, raw, and real.
With all of that said, there is still joy to be found here. Tina’s second-act comeback is empowering and visceral, all the more so because the script does not downplay her challenges. Instead, it makes a stark statement about choice and the power of the human spirit, and Villanueva doesn’t miss a beat. She is vulnerable, strong, emotional, and practical all at once. With her powerful voice, charisma, and complete commitment to her role, she exemplifies everything that Tina Turner is known for. Villanueva also has the aid of a strong supporting cast. Lael Van Keuren makes for a surprising ally as her manager-turned-friend, and the pair, along with others, deliver a lovely rendition of “Open Arms.”
Ultimately, the show ends with all the glamor and glitz one would expect from a Broadway musical, but it’s the softer, braver moments that really shine here. Viewers are encouraged to engage and enjoy, but also to look past the sparkling costumes and dazzling choreography to the powerful story of survival and triumph that lies beneath.
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