The cast of the jukebox musical “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical.” (Courtesy of Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)
The good news about “Tina – The Tina Turner Musical,” which opened a two-week run Wednesday at Minneapolis’ Orpheum Theatre, is that it offers some of the most thrilling musical theater around whenever the title character grabs the microphone and sings.
The bad news about the jukebox musical is a whole lot of what happens when Tina Turner (Parris Lewis) isn’t on stage.
To be sure, Turner’s life story is well known by this point, thanks to her best-selling autobiography “I, Tina” and the hit 1993 film adaptation “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” Born Anna Mae Bullock to a mother who abandoned her, Turner got her name from her abusive musical partner Ike Turner. After escaping Ike, and toiling away for years in obscurity, she staged a massive comeback at the age of 44 with her breakthrough album “Private Dancer.”
The role of Turner in “Tina” is so physically and emotionally demanding, two women (Naomi Rodgers and Zurin Villanueva) were cast to play her on alternating nights in this touring production. But due to an illness in the company that led to the cancellation of two Thursday performances, the understudy Lewis played Turner on opening night. During the local run, she’ll continue in the role in rotation with Villanueva and Ari Groover, while Rodgers takes a temporary leave from the show.
While she’s physically smaller than the real-life Turner, Lewis was magnificent throughout, with a powerful voice and the acting chops to fully portray Turner’s evolution from battered wife to hardened survivor to worldwide superstar.
The biggest problem with “Tina” is the wildly inconsistent tone. Much of the first act revolves around physical abuse played out with startling realism. But the second act introduces cringeworthy attempts at broad humor that feel totally out of place next to much more serious matters. (For reasons unknown, the show portrays Martyn Ware – the British musician who helped reintroduce Turner to the mainstream – as an utter buffoon. There’s also a weird pot shot aimed at ’80s choreographer/vocalist Toni Basil of all people.)
There’s also the muddled issue of Turner’s Buddhism. Writers Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins clearly felt it was an important enough aspect of her life to book-end the show with scenes of her chanting. But it’s never explained why she was a follower or what it meant to her personally, and her introduction to the religion happens in a blink-and-you’ll-miss it moment on stage.
“Tina” is stuffed with baffling creative decisions, including its overly long running time of nearly three hours, including intermission and a brief post-show concert featuring Turner and her band. And too much of the show is devoted to the pain inflicted on Turner by her mother and Ike Turner as well as the frequent, casual racism she encountered along the way. Yes, Tina Turner’s story is about struggle, but it’s also about triumph and “Tina” barely allows time for the latter.
Again, Lewis is amazing in the starring role. So is Ayvah Johnson as the young Anna Mae, who lights up the stage early in the show and thankfully returns in the second act. The musical numbers – “River Deep Mountain High” and “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)” in particular – are spectacular. It’s a shame about the rest of it.
‘Tina – The Tina Turner Musical’
- When: Through March 12
- Where: Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis
- Tickets: $139-$40 via hennepintheatretrust.org
- Capsule: Come for the magical musical numbers, skip the muddled story.