Reviewed by Tim Garratt
In a 2018 interview, Tina Turner said, “People think my life has been tough, but I think it’s been a wonderful journey. The older you get, the more you realise it’s not what happened, but how you deal with it.”
Seeing these events from her life dramatised in TINA – The Tina Turner Musical, now playing at Sydney’s Theatre Royal, you quickly appreciate the enormous adversity Turner faced for much of her life, and how astonishingly she emerged from the lowest of low points.
Dubbed the ‘Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll’, Turner’s is one of the most impressive careers in music, to date. She has sold over 100 million records, undertaken record-breaking world tours, won eight Grammy Awards, and was the first female to grace the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Turner is a global icon who, while now 83 and retired from the music world, may be about to amass a whole new generation of Australian fans via this stage musical, which features a book by Katori Hall (with Frank Katelaar and Kees Prins) and is set to more than 20 of Turner’s own hits.
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd (the original director of Mamma Mia! on stage and on film), TINA spans the life of the superstar (played here by Ruva Ngwenya) from her dysfunctional childhood in Nutbush, Tennessee, to her introduction to Ike Turner (Tim Omaji) in 1956 and joining his band, the Kings of Rhythm, to their tumultuous marriage (in which Turner was frequently a victim of domestic violence), and their success as the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. Despite the disturbingly violent nature of their personal partnership, the duo (but especially Turner) continued to chalk up professional victories for two decades.
But in 1976, one particularly violent altercation became the catalyst for Turner to flee her marriage. With no money and two young children in tow, the singer was forced to start her life again and struggled for several years to eke out a living. Fortunately, her own dogged determination and an introduction to Australian artist manager and music producer Roger Davies (Mat Verevis) helped Turner take her music career to new stratospheric heights.
Clearly, Turner’s is a story punctuated by such dynamic events that it lends itself well to adaptation as a jukebox musical. There is plenty with which Hall, Katellar and Prins can work. And while their book is successful in conveying an intense sense of the hardship and brutality that defined a large part of Turner’s life, there are times when the text could have benefited from more nuance. Of course, jukebox musicals are not generally known for the strength of their books, and TINA is no exception in this respect.
However, the music is impossible to resist, thanks in large part to a superb band (led by Christina Polimos) that provides us a vital reproduction of an iconic collection of tracks, culminating in a brilliantly full-bodied performance of some of the biggest of those hits. And then there’s Ngwenya, the show’s single most key ingredient. As the music legend, she delivers an outstanding performance, establishing herself as a bona-fide star of the Australian stage. Not only does she knock the biggest notes out of the park, but her take on Turner invokes an authentic sense of the artist and is simultaneously distinctly her own. It’s a performance that keeps you cheering for Turner right up until the second she finally leaves the stage.
In fact, TINA’s cast is strong across the board. Omaji’s portrayal of Turner’s abusive husband, Ike, is excellent, hitting all the right notes musically and dramatically. Ibinabo Jack is perfect as Zelma Bullock, Turner’s harsh and aloof mother, while Tendai Rinomhota imbues the character of Tina’s grandmother with great warmth; Nadia Komazec is aptly concerned and constant as Rhonda Graam, Turner’s first manager; and Verevis’s Davies is wonderfully affable and passionate, as Turner charts her ultimate course. In the terrific ensemble cast, too, there’s not a weak link to be found.
The end result is a night of musical theatre that is high on energy and high on entertainment value, celebrating the extraordinary career of a rock ‘n’ roll legend. Go for the music, go for the talent and rest assured, you won’t be disappointed.
Tina – The Tina Turner Musical is now playing at Sydney’s Theatre Royal.