Propelled by an at-times uncanny tour de force performance at its center, “Tina – The Tina Turner Musical” got people to their feet while chronicling the life of the Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll – even if the frenetic pace of the story prevented greater insight into her motivations.
The musical begins with a young girl singing loudly in a Tennessee church pew and follows Tina Turner all the way to the height of her fame – a 1988 concert in Brazil boasting 180,000 screaming fans. In the meantime, the audience at the First Interstate Center for the Arts Tuesday was showered with hit after hit in Turner’s 50-plus-year career as an icon of rock music.
Except for the first scenes, the actress in the titular role is on stage nearly the entire night – tasked with playing a 17-year-old and a middle-aged star looking for her comeback. At Tuesday’s night’s performance, understudy Parris Lewis was more than up to the task.
She was believable at every stage of Turner’s career – embodying Turner’s voice to the point where upon closing your eyes you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference while she sang such hits as “River Deep – Mountain High” or “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” Lewis even modulated her singing throughout the evening to mirror how age changes a voice – adding to her believability over the course of a 30-year span.
It was during these well-known hits when the theater became most alive – when the audience for a moment could be transported back in time and believe for a moment they were at a Tina Turner concert. This was most true at the play’s climax, where Lewis takes her last steps up a flight of stairs to suddenly and completely transform into the star.
Done away with laborious plot details, the apparent reincarnation of Turner spends the last 20 minutes of the play performing a breathtaking concert centered around “Proud Mary.”
While these last few glorious moments thrill, they also make you wish they had been more representative of the night as a whole. Through no fault of the talented cast and production, “Tina – The Tina Turner Musical” struggles to make a compelling story out of its subject’s undeniably compelling life.
Every scene in the show’s first act appears to skip several years as characters are introduced who come in and then promptly leave Turner’s life. The show never lingers on its star long enough to know what’s truly going on in her head.
It is a problem endemic to the form of the jukebox musical – where the need to fit in as many songs as possible leaves scant time to develop compelling characters even with this musical’s nearly3-hour run time.
The other structural issue with musical is that throughout the 90-minute first act, its titular character does not make a choice. She is left by her mother as a child, all but forced to perform with her abusive soon-to-be-husband Ike Turner and ultimately coerced into marriage.
This narrative leaves Turner as a cipher at the center of her own story. An hour into the show, it remains a mystery what Turner wants and if she even dreams of her life as a performer.
This void is filled by the colorful characters who surround her. Roderick Lawrence’s Ike Turner swaggers and menaces through the theater – taking every opportunity to heap physical and emotional abuse on Tina Turner.
Lawrence turns in a magnetic performance – one that hints at depth in what is ultimately a one-note character.
But because Ike Turner is shown to be so relentless in his abuse and Tina Turner is given little reason to fall for him despite it, the play strains credulity when she tells him she would never leave him.
After eventually doing so, Tina Turner finds agency in the second act as she plots her 1980s comeback.
But because her desires were not clearly articulated at the top of the show, it is not entirely understandable what drives Turner so relentlessly toward stardom.
But beyond the weak book of the musical, the songs remain.
And those songs – along with the powerhouse performance of the show’s lead – are well worth the price of admission, especially if you are a lifelong fan of the Queen of Rock.
”Tina – The Tina Turner Musical,” reviewed Tuesday at the First Interstate Center for the Arts, continues through Sunday. For tickets and information, visit broadwayspokane.com.