“Can’t we slow down the groove just a little bit,” a young, gasping Tina Turner (Adrienne Warren) begs her hard-driving soon-to-be-husband early on in Tina: The Tina Tuner Musical. “So when I start to sing I can… I can… I can catch my breath for a bit?”
Her plea goes unheeded by Ike (Daniel J. Watts) — and in a bigger sense, by Olivier-winning playwright Katori Hall (The Mountaintop) too, who wrote the book with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins. Instead, their frenetic, glitter-strewn script rushes headlong through nearly every scene, galloping past the biographical milestones of an extraordinary life only long enough to mark them and move on to what the audience has presumably come for: the music.
Their greatest gift in that respect is Warren, the Virginia-born actress who originated the role on London’s West End last year. Her singing voice is a hall-of-fame instrument, smoky and sweet and seemingly effortless (though less so when she attempts to speak in Turner’s signature low rasp).
There’s hardly a weak link the cast vocally, or in the high-kicking choreography by Anthony van Laast, and Mark Thompson’s lazy-Susan-style staging is a quick-change marvel — shifting from church pew to nightclub, through airports, rest stops, and studios so swiftly that it feels less like a series of set changes than sleight of hand.
But as director Phyllida Lloyd (who helmed Mamma Mia! in both its stage and film versions) careens through the play’s paces — from a pint-size Anna Mae Bullock’s beginnings in Nutbush, Tennessee to her fateful meeting as a teenager in St. Louis with the man who would mold and rename her, on through their tumultuous union and her unlikely break into solo stardom in her mid-40s — pretty much every note of nuance is lost in the razzle-dazzle rush.
Turner’s onstage conversion to Buddhism happens in about eight seconds, which is slightly longer than she gets to recover from childbirth. Watts (Hamilton, The Color Purple) seems like a gifted and sensitive actor, but his Ike hits, berates, and very occasionally charms Tina not for any clear cause or character motivation (other than a brief allusion to his father, beaten to death in Mississippi for the crime of courting a white woman) but because he’s Ike Turner, Famously Terrible Human.
What looms over Hall’s squeezed-from-concentrate storytelling most, inevitably, is What’s Love Got to Do With It — the 1993 biopic that essentially followed the same narrative, with infinitely more subtlety and space to unfurl.
That film had the incomparable Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne in the main roles; what it didn’t have, of course, was their own vocals. And the way Warren tears through Tina’s musical numbers here is rarely less than spectacular: Almost every song, from “Nutbush City Limits,” and “River Deep Mountain High” to “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” hits some kind of goosebump apex; several Turner recordings originated by other artists are thrown into the mix too: Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain.”
After a sustained and riotous standing ovation on this preview night, the curtain call abandoned any pretense of narrative and went straight for a live concert experience, letting Warren rip into reprises of some Turner’s signature hits. She’s electrifying — and after nearly three overstuffed hours, it felt great, at last, to be breathless for all the right reasons. B–