Tina: The Tina Turner Musical
Adrienne Warren is so good in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, such a fabulous force of musical nature, that any fan of Turner (actually, even if you’re not) should head to Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre (booking to June 7, 2020) and prepare to be ecstatically blown away.
Warren—her voice, presence, her crackling, energetic, emphatic ownership of the role of Turner herself—is the thrumming whole of this show. It makes up for the book, which—as so many biopics can be on stage and screen—is scattered and unfocused. It makes up for subsidiary characters, who we want to hear more from and do not. Warren’s voice and command of the stage—really, how does she do this, eight shows a week?—reigns supreme.
Turner herself is listed as an executive producer, and so—just as with The Cher Show—the subject of the show is not only alive but presiding over what we are seeing. How rounded and complex a portrait can this be?
To begin, the excellent Skye Dakota Turner (as a young Tina, or Anna-Mae as she is known to her loved ones throughout) sings “Nutbush City Limits”; after this, the principal storyline for the bulk of the first section is really centered around adult Tina getting abused by Ike (Daniel J. Watts), which occurs alongside their rise to fame. This abuse begins with menace, and quickly escalates to violence.
The audience I sat within reacted audibly not just to the abuse, but the sweep of the story and the songs. There was some chuckling when you see how the musical jimmy-jammies Turner’s songs into the story. “Shake a Tailfeather” features Tina, her sister Alline (Mars Rucker), and their girlfriends as Tina moves to Detroit for the first time. “Let’s Stay Together” features Tina with Gerald Caesar as Raymond, a sweet early crush.
There is a puzzling emphasis on Nichiren Buddhism. It may well be Turner’s religion, but its presence on stage—with chanting and other chanting people in robes—feels odd because it floats in front of us without full explanation or integration into the story.
There is very little burrowing into character in the show: how did Turner’s beliefs evolve, how important are they to her? Early family life (cold mother, abusive father) was clearly difficult, but on stage it is skated over. Tina is old-school, big and brash Broadway, directed at a colorful gallop by Phyllida Lloyd, choreographed by Anthony Van Laast, and exuberantly designed and costumed by Mark Thompson.
The physicality of Ike’s abuse is made clear, but the show does not investigate the terrain of an abusive relationship in any deeper way. The storyline culminates in a rousing, audience-satisfying confrontation and ultimate liberation, set to “I Don’t Want To Fight No More.” You will cheer, but—as in a similar storyline within the Donna Summer musical—something far from cartoonish ends up feeling precisely that.
The musical touches on the racism that Turner has faced, both as a young singer on the road with Ike from rednecks who mean them harm; and later, when going solo, in the record company boardroom when white executives don’t believe an n-word (yes, it is used) of her age merits their investment. But, rather like the abuse, these darker themes bloom, then evaporate. In the scenes featuring Turner and her judgmental mother Zelma (Dawnn Lewis), too much happens between them in scenes that are too brief. Then it’s on to the next song.
Warren navigates these strange and unrealized narrative interludes with a breezy grace, and then carries on powering—and I mean bold-p powering—through the show’s songs. Sometimes she has to sing one of those songs, then head straight into a heavy acting moment.
Warren herself maps the story of Turner’s voice, which begins as restrained and clotted, and then flowers to its familiar timbre of rumbling, echoing command. In act two, the musical becomes a bright, shiny whirligig set first in Las Vegas for “Private Dancer and Disco Inferno.”
Then, to London, where Tina’s meet-cute with now-husband Erwin Bach (Ross Lekites) takes us through to fully realized independent solo artist Tina, Warren utterly rocking out for “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” and “(Simply) The Best.”
For the finale, the stage erupts into a riot of lights and color, the excellent (up to now unseen) orchestra, led by Nicholas Skilbeck, revealed in full. Whatever has happened to Turner in the last 30 years remains off the musical’s radar.
The crowd does not care about this gap of history, swaying and singing along to Warren, our fizzing ringmaster. The only miracle at this point is that the Lunt-Fontanne’s roof hasn’t taken flight to space, but still the music continues (with a sweet, shared encore with Turner). When Warren does leave the stage to deservedly rapturous applause and cheers we’re blissfully shattered. Warren looks like she could keep on belting.
Cyrano de Bergerac
The problem with Cyrano de Bergerac, as a musical on a modestly-sized stage (at the Daryl Roth Theatre, to Dec 22), without the zippy camera angles and the bullets and smoke of battle scenes that film can bring, is that it hinges on one plot-point. And on a two-dimensional, starkly designed stage, that one plot-point can feel mightily drawn out and belabored.
In Erica Schmidt’s adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, Cyrano (played as charismatic and earnest by Peter Dinklage of Game of Thrones fame) loves his cousin Roxanne (Jasmine Cephas Jones), but has been thoroughly friend-zoned. He ends up confessing all his feelings for her in beautiful, eloquent letters that bewitch her for sure—but she believes them to be from the conventionally handsome Christian (Blake Jenner).
And so, Cyrano—kind of like Tyrion Lannister, a witty, full-of-beans brainiac with a big heart who fights enemies, and believes in wit and art—doesn’t say anything, and lives to serve Roxanne loyally. The cleverest thing about this production is that Cyrano doesn’t come with the usual big nose; instead Dinklage challenges his naysayers to say what makes him so different. And they have nothing to say.
When and how Roxanne will learn the truth about Cyrano and Christian becomes the whole story, here furnished with music by The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner, with lyrics by Matt Berninger and Carin Besser.
There are hints or attempts to stud this story, with extra elements, with both Grace McLean and Josh A. Dawson poorly underused as Marie and Le Bret, Roxanne and Cyrano’s devoted servants. Ritchie Coster’s De Guiche is a raspingly-voiced villain latterly stalked by regret.
The repetition of the play’s mechanics turns all Cyrano’s wit and briskness into an inner torment that goes nowhere. The key battle scene becomes a too-pretty ballet, and the musical itself becomes a series of will-he-reveal-himself? set-ups. The true tragedy of Cyrano unfolds in the musical’s climactic moments of revelation and recognition, but just as it is too late for Cyrano and Roxanne, it also feels too rushed a coda on stage.
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