The packed house started cheering as soon the curtains opened to reveal Tina (played this night by Zurin Villanueva), and Broadway in Cincinnati set the tone for a killer season with Tina: The Tina Turner Musical as their season opener at the Aronoff. Featuring favorite songs from the Grammy award-winning Queen of Rock n’ Roll, Tina will have you clapping, stomping, and dancing in your seat.
Our introduction to Tina seamlessly transitions into a pivotal place for Young Anna-Mae (her name before the fame), played by the incredibly talented Ayvah Johnson. We find her singing in the church, surrounded by the congregation who loves and supports her.
While the congregation and the audience are thrilled with her big, beautiful voice, her bold behavior embarrasses her mother, who complains that she sings too loud and attracts too much attention. This starts a fight between her parents before they both walk out on Young Anna-Mae, leaving her to be raised by Gran Georgeanna (played on opening night by understudy and dance captain Shari Washington Rhone).
After growing up with Gran Georgeanna, Tina is invited back to her mother’s house with her sister Alline (Parris Lewis), who shows her St. Louis nightlife. While out, they find Ike (Garrett Turner) and his band, who invite all the girls at the bar to sing with them. After Tina impresses him, he asks her mother if she can join his band, and everyone insists “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine.” And so begins the whirlwind that is the Ike and Tina Turner tour.
Tina: The Tina Turner Musical is full of flashing lights and fun choreography in the right moments, but if you’re expecting this to be another jukebox musical just to sing along to or a concert you can watch without a lot of thought, think again. The librettist trio Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar, and Kees Prins did not stray away from digging into tougher topics like domestic violence. This theme follows Tina throughout her journey until she takes control of her life and never lets go.
While this show does not shy away from hard subjects, Act 2 does bring in some welcome humor and cute moments. Plus, the music itself brings enough entertainment to keep the evening balanced. Director Phyllida Lloyd guides the cast through this book to tell a genuine story that is moving and entertaining.
From the high-energy ensemble numbers to the hard-hitting solos, there is no weak voice among the cast of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. Zurin Villanueva herself captures the audiences’ attention every time she opens her mouth, but when she grabs a microphone and starts dancing, you know you’re in for a show. The ensemble plays much more than backup singers and dancers as they fill the stage with energy and excitement and turn each song into a show. Ayvah Johnson stands out with a full, beautiful voice that shines now and promises a bright future in performance. Taylor Blackman as Raymond comes as sort of a surprise in the plot, but is certainly welcome with his charming song “Let’s Stay Together” that will leave you shipping Tina and Raymond even though you just learned about them. Music Director and Conductor Anne Shuttle deserves that moment onstage with the cast during curtain call to share in the celebration.
The cast excellently tells the story, but the creative design sets the stage every step of the way. With so many scenes, the simple set (Mark Thompson) helps keep transitions quick and seamless, and works well with the lighting (Bruno Poet) and projections (Jeff Sugg). The projections range from contextual clues like the St. Louis arch outside “windows” to more abstract designs to match the energy of the music. The lighting varies from selective spotlights to full rock concert strobes. Everything serves the story and transports the audience to new places.
By the last song before curtain, “Simply The Best,” the audience is itching to stand. The singing, the band, the lights, costumes, the dancing all pull together for this one beautiful moment that transports us to Tina Turner’s concert, which earns a standing ovation before the lights fade.