Bookended by Emi Wokoma’s Tina Turner reflecting on her rocky road to success, this musical about the megastar’s marriage to Ike and rise to stardom comes across as a simplified rerun of Turner biopic ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It’. It boasts a stunning central performance but lacks substance.
Bio-dramas are the rags-to-riches fairytales of our times, and this production – studded with hits from the Ike and Tina Turner Revue and Tina’s early solo career – is no different. Pete Brooks and Bob Eaton have given us the legend of Tina Turner. Played out against a comic-strip-style backdrop, it turns the moment Anna Mae Bullock chooses her stage name into something akin to Peter Parker’s radioactive spider bite.
The perfunctory script won’t win awards for subtlety. When a young and naive Anna Mae becomes lead vocalist for her future husband’s band in 1950s East St Louis, so heavily does it foreshadow the storm clouds on the horizon that it’s a wonder she doesn’t run screaming from the stage.
The show’s efforts to turn Tina’s disintegrating relationship with the insecure, abusive Ike into a prism for twentieth-century American history results in some cringingly clunky dialogue about civil rights and feminism. And scenes of domestic violence sit queasily alongside audience sing alongs.
In this pick ‘n’ mix production, events in Turner’s life become a coat hanger for the next song. Her conversion to Buddhism segues almost immediately into ‘I Don’t Wanna Fight’. From ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ onwards, it’s clear that, whatever it claims to be, this is a tribute act in fancy clothing.
Vigorous choreography and a great live band recreate the atmosphere of smoky bars and stadiums. And Emi Wokoma tears up the stage as Turner, raising the show’s quality tenfold. Whether belting out ‘Proud Mary’ or ‘Honky Tonk Woman’, she distills the singer’s distinctive growl and hip-swivelling moves into a performance of star-making quality.
This is a foot-tapping, often enjoyable show, marred by a use of Turner’s life-story that lacks drama and occasionally feels tacky. Stripping out the personal elements and letting the magnificent Wokoma barnstorm her way through the set list would be more fun, and more honest.
First published by Time Out