It all comes down to two things in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, which celebrated its 200th tour performance Wednesday at the Nederlander Theatre: the songs, and the woman who sings them.
The songs are immutable stars in the rock and R&B firmament. They were hoisted to the heavens by the singular force of nature who recorded them. Which means this show lives and dies on how well the lead role is cast. It’s a tall order, literally. Where can one find a young woman with legs as long as Tina’s, with pipes as powerful as Tina’s, and with the acting chops to inhabit one of the most talented, high-octane performers of her generation?
The producers somehow found that unicorn in Zurin Villanueva, who spends more than two hours inhabiting Tina Turner, belting out the hits in electrifying fashion and providing the audience with insights into how the singer survived the many trials of her childhood and touring years with abusive husband Ike Turner on her way to becoming a living legend.
Are there flaws in the show? A few. The pacing and tone are uneven in spots, and the show seems unsure of exactly how to treat Ike, as a raging buffoon or a malevolent force.
But always, there is Zurin Villanueva, and there are those wonderful songs. Not to mention a star in the making in Ayvah Johnson, the bubbly, charismatic 9-year-old actor who has us rooting for young Anna-Mae Bullock from the beginning of the show (she also makes a welcome return at the end).
My one musical quibble early on was that “Nutbush City Limits,” a killer rave-up, seemed to be a bit wasted as an ensemble number. But then, after the show’s triumphant ending, Villanueva did the song true justice during a brief encore that had the crowd, already standing to provide a much-deserved ovation, dancing in the aisles. Other standout numbers include “Proud Mary” (twice) and the Phil Spector-produced “River Deep – Mountain High.” Truly, though, all the songs are good. They’ll outlast us all, and deservedly so.
Tina: The Tina Turner Musical runs through April 2 at Broadway in Chicago’s Nederlander Theatre.
For a full roundup of reviews of this show, visit Theatre in Chicago.
Photo by Matthew Murphy