You don’t get dubbed “The Queen of Rock n’ Roll” for nothing. And if you are not already a fan of the legend that is Tina Turner, or her music, after seeing the electrifying jukebox musical, “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” at Playhouse Square in downtown Cleveland, you will understand why she owns that title.
Don’t let the term “jukebox musical” fool you into thinking that this is a fun-loving, fluffy, bop-in-your-seat kind of show from beginning to end. The term refers to a show where the majority of songs are well-known and often used to tell the story of the artist. And in this case, the story is one of childhood neglect, mental and physical abuse and ultimately, determination, strength and survival.
This musical is not perfect, with the flaws lying in the story structure. It would be impossible to fully capture the true arch of Tina’s brutal circumstances which begin in Nutbush Tennessee when the young Anna-Mae Bullock (Ayvah Johnson) is abandoned, first by her controlling mother (Roz White) who takes her favorite daughter Alline (Parris Lewis) and walks out, and then by her father (Kristopher Stanley Ward), who preaches the Good Book in church, only to come home and beat his wife. Anna-Mae is raised by her Gran Georgeanna (Carla R. Stewart), until she eventually sends the teen to New York to be reunited with her mother and sister.
During a night on the town, she catches the eye of Ike Turner (Garrett Turner), lead performer of a popular band in town, who convinces Tina’s mother to let her join him on tour with promises of taking care of her and making her a star. But Ike is like a ticking time bomb. He has an explosive temper, and he manipulates and controls Tina’s every move, only to cheat on her, use drugs, and knock her around every chance he gets. After years of enduring his abuse, she finally leaves ... with nothing but the nightgown she is wearing. She has to do whatever she can to start over, raise her children and reinvent herself, which she ultimately does.
Playwrights Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins had an insurmountable task of picking and choosing which events to highlight in this bio-musical, in order to portray the intensity of Turner’s life. They had to be truthful, while using poetic license to create a through line that makes sense within the confines of a show, and at the same time, spotlight the heroic measures that Turner had to take in order to survive and triumph as a performer ... and a woman.
But sometimes it feels like one blow after another ... and another ... and another ...with some great songs that are, in some cases, awkwardly retrofitted into the plot. This would be disconcerting and even a little exhausting if not for the incredible talent up on that stage, and to watch them make their magic, you will want a front row seat.
The daunting role of Tina is played by two different performers during the week. During this particular performance, it was Naomi Rodgers who lit up the stage with her outstanding turn as the iconic Tina. While no one can duplicate the raw grit that comes from the depths of Tina’s soul, Rodgers’ voice is actually more polished than Tina’s, with extraordinary range both vocally and emotionally. She pours her heart out for nearly two and a half hours showing her versatility as an actor, singer and dancer, perfectly replicating the famous moves that Tina is known for from shimmy to shimmy and everything in between.
Equally impressive is the youngest talent in the room, as Ayvah Johnson’s portrayal of Young Anna-Mae will make your jaw drop. Johnson is a star in the making, and because of an incredible mini rock concert tacked on to the end of the show, we are fortunate to get to see her again after Tina grows up.
Garrett Turner gives an appropriately upsetting performance as Ike Turner. In fact, the audience isn’t quite sure how to celebrate him during his bow, as he is clearly the main villain in Tina’s life. Our hesitation to hoot and holler only means he has done his job as an actor. He flips back and forth oozing charm, raising his voice, and raising his fist, establishing an emotional roller coaster for us to ride.
The entire cast deserves kudos for their top-notch performances, creating an incredible chemistry on stage that needs no help from fancy set pieces. The simple design is enough, along with creative lighting and projections that allow the actors to do the work they are meant to do.
The real payoff comes at the end of the show when we cannot help but leap to our feet as we are treated to the rock concert we have been waiting for – which includes an encore/more complete version of “Proud Mary,” which is abruptly cut short at the end of Act One. The shaggy-haired, confident Tina, embodied by the sensational Naomi Rodgers, holds a roaring crowd in the palm of her hand. This is when Tina’s life, as portrayed throughout this musical biography, flashes before our eyes, and the lyric “Simply the Best” takes on a whole new meaning.
Sheri Gross is the CJN theatre critic. She is a performer, director and freelance writer from Solon. She was the director of the Mandel JCC Playmakers Youth Theatre and Pilloff Performing Arts Camp for over 20 years and is the director of creative programs at Gross Schechter Day School in Pepper Pike.