Tina: The Tina Turner Musical (Theatre Royal Sydney) – theatre review

The rise and fall and spectacular comeback of Tina Turner is one of the great stories from the annals of rock n roll, and it all makes for a fantastic stage drama. Turner, known as the Queen of Rock has won eight Grammy Awards, sold over 200 million records and has twice been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame – once for her work with the Ike and Tina Turner Revue and again as a solo performer. But her journey to the top was not an easy one, filled with lots of personal dramas and setbacks, tears and triumphs. Tina: The Tina Turner Musical brings all the highs and lows of her career to the stage and this production has been personally endorsed by the rock icon herself, who spent time with Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Katori Hall to shape the drama with her own personal recollections – and much of it is raw and emotional and at times unflinching in its honesty. As Turner herself says: “This is not about my stardom, this is about the journey I took to get there.”

The play follows Tina (Ruva Nqwenya) from her early years when, as Anna Mae Bullock, she sang in the church choir in the church for which her father was a minister, but it was always her strong voice that stood out. But her father was also something of an abusive man, and eventually her mother left, taking Anna Mae’s sister Aline with her. Soon afterwards her father left, leaving Anna Mae to be raised by her grandmother. Years later as a teenager she moved to St Louis to live with her mother and sister and it was while visiting night clubs there that she first met Ike Turner, who was so impressed with her voice that he asked her to join his band the Kings of Rhythm. She later married him, but learned at great personal cost that Ike was a violent, abuser womaniser and control freak, and their tumultuous relationship was marked by domestic abuse and violence (much of which was detailed in the film What’s Love Got To Do With It).

Tina follows her journey in chronological fashion. However, many of her hit songs are woven throughout the narrative. The show opens with a slowed down version of Nutbush City Limits, sung by her father Richard (Augie Tchantcho) and the church choir. When Ike (Tim Omaji) proposes to Tina we hear Better Be Good To Me; her suicide attempt is accompanied by a moving rendition of Be Tender With Me Baby; and a powerful energetic version of Proud Mary leads into the violent end of her tumultuous marriage with Ike. And Act 1 ends with the ironic I Don’t Wanna Fight.

Act 2 opens with Private Dancer as we learn about her struggles in the years after her separation from Ike and how he took out an injunction preventing her from performing any of the songs she sang as part of his group. After finally leaving Ike, Turner struggled for many years in relative obscurity, barely managing to pay her bills while raising her two young boys and playing gigs in Vegas with a band that could hardly play a tune. Then salvation came in the form of Roger Davies (Mat Verevis), the brash Australian who also managed Olivia Newton-John and who promised to resurrect her career. There is some humour in the scene in which Davies introduces Tina to Martin Ware and songwriter Terry Britten (John O’Hara) who were hired to produce a demo recording for the executives at Capitol Records.

However, Capitol Records was unwilling to take a chance on a washed up 40-year-old black female singer, until her song What’s Love Got To Do With It became a global hit in 1984. And it all culminates with her concert in front of 180,000 people in Rio de Janiero when she belts out a rousing version of The Best, which had the audience on their feet and clapping in the aisles.

This production is based on the original theatrical production that opened in London in 2018, staged by director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!). Oamji is excellent as the volatile Ike Turner. Matthew Prime is good as Erwin Bach, the German born record company executive who became Tina’s confidante and companion for the last thirty years of her life, transforming the second act into something of a love story as well. Verevis brings some humour to proceedings with his take on Davies, while O’Hara also plays slightly arrogant music producer Phil Spector during the scene recreating his epic production on River Deep, Mountain High with its Wall of Sound production values. The nine-piece band, under the musical direction of Christina Polimos, are excellent.

While the ensemble cast are all good, the show truly belongs to Ruva Nqwenya (Moulin Rouge), who is superb as Tina, rocking that hair and costumes and capturing her stage mannerisms perfectly, and she belts out her numerous songs with gusto. She commands the stage and is a strong Turner, especially when she asserts her independence and declares that she refuses to be “another man’s puppet” and takes control of the direction of her career. And after the final curtain call and ovations are over she returns to the stage with the band to entertain the audience with a rousing encore that includes a rousing version of Nutbush City Limits.

The recent passing of Tina Turner at the age of 83 lends an extra poignancy to the production, and I must admit that I even felt a little misty-eyed by the end. Tina: The Tina Turner Musical is simply the best, a superb tribute to her talent and her enduring popularity. If you get the chance to see this fabulous production, I urge you not to miss it!

Tina: The Tina Turner Musical now playing at the Theatre Royal in Sydney, with the season running till 22 October 2023

Greg King

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