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'TINA: THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL' Book by Katori Hall With Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins

Now onstage at Toronto's Ed Mirvish Theatre.

Credit: Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade, 2022. Pictured: Zurin Villanueva as Tina

Joe Szekeres

‘This North American tour’s engaging story reminds us of the resiliency of womanhood. Simply the best is one way to describe this tour. Zurin Villanueva is a temptress in song and movement as Tina.”

Toronto Star Culture reporter Joshua Chong recently wrote a pre-show article for the North American tour stop in Toronto about the role of the beloved Rock ‘n Roll Queen:

“The role is so demanding that…the part (of Tina) is split between two actors, Zurin Villanueva and Ari Groover, with each performing four of the eight shows.”

After a sensational opening night with Villanueva in the role, I most certainly understand why that decision was made. Tina Turner's role is physically and vocally demanding. The artist rarely leaves the stage. Sometimes, the actor may leave with a flourish and reappear in another costume or stylized hair.

Ah, the magic of the theatre. When it’s good, it’s good. When it’s grand, it’s grand.

This production is grand. Simply grand.

No, wait, it’s simply the best.

The Mirvish website describes the show as an inspirational woman breaking barriers and becoming the Queen of Rock ‘n Roll.

It truly is just that.

The story begins when the mega superstar is about to go on stage for one of her concerts. We find her quietly reciting a Buddhist chant. Next, the story flashes back to her hometown of Nutbush, Tennessee, where a young Tina-born Anna Mae Bullock (Brianna Cameron, at this performance) sings joyfully at the local community church gathering, much to the embarrassment of her mother Zelma (Roz White). Zelma and her husband, Richard (Kristopher Stanley Ward), do not get along. When he physically assaults her, Zelma takes Anna Mae’s older sister, Alline (Natalia Nappo, at this performance), leaving the young Anna Mae to be raised by her Gran Georgeanna (Carla R. Stewart).

Years later, Gran encourages the young and hopeful Anna to go to Memphis to record an album. Anna goes to St. Louis to stay with her mother and sister, Alline (Shari Washington Rhone, at this performance). The impressionable Anna Mae has rarely experienced nightlife in the big city, so she and her older sister go to a nightclub where Ike Turner (Deon Releford-Lee) and his band are playing. Anna Mae is encouraged to get up on the stage and sing with Ike. He becomes enamoured with the young woman’s voice and then goes to Zelma to ask permission for Anna Mae to join the band.

Ike then changed the young woman’s name to Tina Turner and the band's name to the Ike and Tina Turner Revue.

The story continues with the downward spiral of a highly possessive and jealous Ike, who becomes enraged over Tina’s popularity before and after marriage. This is most evident when manager Phil Spector (Eric Siegle) wants to record Tina solo.

The second act involves the divorced and struggling Tina Turner, who does her best to make a comeback in the industry and her tenacity in wanting to do so. Her manager, Rhonda (Sarah Bockel), stands by the icon. With Roger Davies (Dylan S. Wallach), an Australian producer and fan of Tina, he becomes her new manager. Rhonda stays on as Tina’s sister and confidante. Erwin Bach (John Battagliese) is also introduced. Is he a possible love interest?

This touring production becomes a tremendous visual cornucopia feast for the eyes, thanks to Mark Thompson’s dazzling set and costume designs. Thompson fully uses the Mirvish stage, especially for the mini concert at the end. As the audience enters, there is a huge scrim on the stage showcasing Tina’s beautiful brown eyes. Make sure you look carefully in the eyes—the right pupil resembles a crucifix, while the left is a star. A most apt and essential Christian juxtaposition is here before the performance begins. Tina feels an inherent gratitude to God for his glory in her career. Jeff Sugg’s projection designs effectively create a specific heightened emotional ambience when needed. Bruno Poet’s lighting is crisply sharp.

For the most part, Nevin Steinberg’s sound design is solid. Once again, there are some sound imbalances between the orchestra and singers, most notably in those Turner song lyrics I didn’t recognize. Hopefully, that can be rectified. Spoken dialogue can be heard.

The creative team is to be applauded for its attention to detail in vocals and performances. Director Phyllida Lloyd smartly keeps Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins's book plot moving forward at an acceptable pace where the action never feels rushed. Scene transitions are smooth as the cast moves set pieces in and out. Anthony Van Laast’s choreography remains exciting and heart-pumping in the opening number ‘Nutbush City Limits.’ Nicholas Skilbeck’s musical arrangements and additional music majestically work while Music Director/Conductor Dani Lee Hutch joyfully raises the roof in several of the musical numbers: ‘River Deep-Mountain High’ and ‘I Don’t Wanna Fight No More.’

Some glorious onstage work is performed with tremendous commitment and passion.

As young Anna Mae Bullock, Brianna Cameron soars in her falsetto voice in the church choir number and during the mini-concert at the end when Villanueva invites the young girl out. Carla R. Stewart is a matronly Gran Georgeanna. Roz White’s Zelma is a fighter who will not endure any mistreatment whatsoever, which becomes an ideal in the young Tina’s life later.

As Tina's manager, Sarah Bocke’s Rhonda becomes the trusted confidante and sister/friend women believe they need. Potential love interest John Battagliese’s Erwin Bach makes me realize that the power of love can strike individuals whenever it can and does. Age does not control it at all.

Deon Releford-Lee delivers a first-class, convincing performance as a frightening, beast-like brute, Ike Turner. The staging of Turner’s attacks on Tina, while not graphic, still manages to capture the horror and fear she must have felt against this man.

Zurin Villanueva is a temptress in song and movement, just like Tina Turner. The vocals soar to the heights of the Mirvish theatre. She has the ‘Turner’ hair. Zurin adopts the hip gyrations as the audience watches the individual fringes swivel on the trademark gold lamé dress she wears at one of the concerts.

But we don’t see an exact Vegas replica of the music icon.

Instead, Villanueva genuinely focuses on a broken and battered woman who learns that she has only herself and her instincts to rely upon. Tina realizes in her resilient assertiveness that she gets to call the shots, and she’s more than happy to do that.

That’s the beauty of ‘Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.’

And that’s the reason why everyone should see it.

And Another Thought: The mini-concert is terrific and worth staying. I saw people leaving right after and not acknowledging this fine company at the curtain call.

To future audiences: please don’t do that.

Running time: approximately two hours and forty minutes with one interval.

The production runs until July 28 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria Street, Toronto. For tickets: mirvish.com or call 1-800-461-3333.

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