‘TINA: THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL:’ A legend finds her strength

Triumph over tragedy

Naomi Rodgers By Matthew Murphy For MurphyMade.
Photo credit: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade
Simply The Best: Naomi Rodgers as Tina Turner in the North American touring production of TINA.

It’s heartbreaking that one of the most defining things about Tina Turner is her physically abusive 16-year relationship with ex-husband Ike Turner. From the first scene of the production, TINA: The Tina Turner Musical, domestic abuse is front and center. When Tina’s mother, Zelma, is slapped by her husband in front of a young Anna Mae Bullock, Tina’s birth name, there is an audible gasp from the audience. It’s possible this is because the sudden violence is a shock to the crowd, but it seems more of a collective epiphany, with the audience audibly acknowledging, “Oh, this is where it started!”

As the musical continues, following Turner’s life, crowd reaction to the simulated violence onstage becomes less noticeable. It is eerie how those of us watching the stage show become numb to the abuse, much as Turner did in real life. For years, the singer was powerless while under the abusive control of Ike Turner. This fight for power is the musical’s standout theme.

Anna Mae Bullock’s mother lacked power in her marriage, so she abandoned her daughter in an attempt to get it back. Subsequently, Bullock/Turner found herself in the same situation as her mother when she joined Ike’s band, where he exerted absolute power over the singers and musicians. When anyone tried to question his authority, he lashed out against them. Once he and Tina were married, he crushed her body as well as her spirit.

It’s not lost that the only two times in the first act where Ike appears less than an absolute authority figure are at the hands of white men — once when he is questioned by the Mississippi police; the other, when he is ordered around in the studio by super producer Phil Spector. People often physically abuse their partners because they, themselves, feel powerless. Although it doesn’t excuse his horrific actions — the man was a monster — Ike, too, was fighting for power he did not see himself having.

I focus so much on the supporting characters, because for much of the first act, things just kind of happen to Tina. Her mother leaves her. Ike scouts her. Ike beats her. She’s there, singing her ass off, but she’s not in control. The abuse is tearing her apart at the seams. At her lowest point, a husk of a person, she finally escapes her abuser. The curtains close.

Act two focuses on Tina gaining her power. Broke and washed-up, she crafts a comeback, her way. She chooses herself over love and her mother. When she comes face-to-face with Ike, he crumbles at the sight of this woman who is now in control of her own destiny — and is more successful than ever. The musical ends with Turner walking onstage to what, at the time, was the largest audience in front of which a solo artist ever performed.

Oh, and there are the songs! It seems odd to not mention them first in a review of a musical about a legendary singer, but that proves how compelling Tina Turner’s life story is. Hits from Turner’s well-known catalog are woven throughout the show, with the “River Deep — Mountain High,” “Proud Mary,” and “The Best,” being huge moments — and productions — paired with eye-catching dancers and presentation.

My favorite musical moment, however, is (spoiler alert) a surprise one, occurring after the actors have all taken their bows, when the actor who plays the role of Tina (Naomi Rodgers and Zurin Villanueva alternate performances) returns to the stage, transforming the production from a musical to a concert, with a straight-forward, two-song set with the live band. It is a perfect a send off for the audience — and the night. The story is complete, and we are able to soak-in the unbridled glory that is Tina Turner and her music.

A Legend Finds Her Strength in ‘TINA: The Tina Turner Musical’

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