TINA: THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL
TINA: THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL, Theatre Royal Sydney, 18 May-8 October 2023. Photography by Daniel Boud: above - Ruva/Tina triumph; below: Tina and Phil Spector record River Deep, Mountain High; below again: Tina and the Ikettes
Since opening in London in 2018 and later on Broadway, Tina: the Tina Turner Musical has scooped up dozens of award nominations and wins as well as millions of pounds, dollars and euros at the box office. It’s a classic Phyllida Lloyd creation.
The English director habitually spends years, right up to curtain-up, refining and improving her shows. And she’s done that with Tina, working with the creative team – especially chief book writer Katori Hall – to clarify, snip and slice; also gaining the trust and cooperation of its legendary subject to tell the truth of her turbulent life. Consequently, the show that blew apart the Theatre Royal on Thursday evening is an even more polished version of the original.
Tina is as sassy, thrilling, vibrant, unique and ultimately overwhelming as Tina Turner herself. It’s a thrilling achievement over two hours and 45 minutes of non-stop music and dance. Yet none of it would be worth a hill of beans without the central casting on whose shoulders it all hangs. Ruva Ngwenya is … simply the best.
(She will alternate with Jochebel Ohene MacCarthy, but on opening night we got the 30-year-old Ruva from Melbourne, with ancestral roots in Zimbabwe.) As it is, Ngwenya commands the stage from the electrifying opening moments. That she is able to do this with such apparent ease was foreshadowed when, as a 15-year-old high school girl, in home-made wig and mum’s leather skirt, she sang River Deep, Mountain High. Did she have any idea of the iconic status of the song? Apparently not. She just knew she could do it, so she did. Much like Tina herself.
Tina Turner is known as the “Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll” yet it’s merely a facet of her life, career and talent. Born and raised in the Deep South where racism was a way of life, Annie Mae Bullock made a loud nuisance of herself at Sunday church. She endured a cruel childhood: discarded by her mother and with aspirations only to menial jobs and marriage.
Spotted by Ike Turner (Tim Omaji), an R&B pioneer, he was Svengali to the 17-year-old, fashioning her into Tina Turner. And when her growing confidence outgrew the “featured vocalist” slot, he devised “The Ike and Tina Turner Revue”. They were eventually married but not happily ever after. Ike was a womaniser and free with his fists. Also free with the money Tina brought in. Racism, however, remained the governing factor in their lives: his music was co-opted by white artists and Tina was fair game and disrespected at every turn, not least by her husband. Divorce and re-invention did not come easy or fast.
The show’s book (Hall assisted by Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins) doesn’t gloss over the grimness of life for black entertainers in the 50s and 60s, including truthful placement of “the N word” – which brought a collective gasp of horror from the Sydney audience. Truth-telling is a vital part of Tina’s story and it’s judiciously worked into the otherwise dazzlingly joyous cavalcade of fabled song and dance (musical supervision, additional music and arrangements by Nicholas Skilbeck, orchestrations by Ethan Popp).
As well as Phyllida Lloyd, the other top rank creatives are choreographer Anthony van Laast, set and costume designer Mark Thompson; lighting designer Bruno Poet, sound designer Nevin Steinberg, projection designer Jeff Sugg, and wigs, hair and makeup design by Campbell Young Associates. All of them familiar with the Tonys.
The show opens in the moments before Tina fronts an arena of 180,000 delirious fans, but also with little Annie Mae (enchanting Aimee Bah on opening night) back in Nutbush. As well as a flawless company, the show is powered by a terrific band led by musical director Christina Polimos. The reproduction of the hits is glorious, and the staging of Tina recording River Deep with Phil Spector, genius producer and convicted murderer (John O’Hara), is illuminating. Then there’s her meet-cute with lifelong companion and – finally – husband, German music exec and 16-year-junior Erwin Bach (Matthew Prime).
Tina is now, at 83, a woman who has left behind the privations and struggles of her earlier life and lives as she pleases in luxury as a “Swiss singer” – citizen of that country – on the shores of Lake Zurich. Or maybe in similar luxury on the French Riviera, or both, depending on the season. But who cares, she deserves it. And she deserves to be depicted so brilliantly by Ruva Ngwenya and this show. It’s simply … wonderful! Recommended without reservation.