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‘Tina’ reaches for a star but falls short

Zurin Villanueva as Tina Turner and the cast of "Tina."Evan Zimmerman

The film industry reflexively defaults to sequels. The TV industry reflexively defaults to reboots. And the theater industry reflexively defaults, all too often, to the well-worn grooves of the jukebox musical.

With “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” now at the Citizens Bank Opera House under the auspices of Broadway In Boston and the direction of Phyllida Lloyd, the law of diminishing returns kicks in.

Is this a competent touring production? Yes. Electrifying? Rarely.

And if there’s one thing a show about Tina Turner needs to be, it’s electrifying.

The issue is partly one of execution and partly one of genre. After decades of jukebox musicals, what’s needed to break through today is a powerhouse performance that transcends the predictability of the formula and maybe even tricks the eye and ear into half-believing that the legend of the title is actually up there onstage.


Only then can we overlook the inevitable linearity of the “And then I sang” (or “And then I wrote”) narrative structures.

Zurin Villanueva as Tina Turner in "Tina."Matthew Murphy

Will Swenson pulled off that feat in the July premiere of “A Beautiful Noise” at Boston’s Emerson Colonial Theatre, eerily channeling singer-songwriter Neil Diamond. And from all accounts, Adrienne Warren more than met that challenge when she originated the title role in the Broadway production of “Tina” (which opened in 2019 and closed last month).

But Zurin Villanueva was insufficiently compelling as Tina on Wednesday night at the Opera House. While she’s a fine singer and it was a largely capable performance — and certainly a committed one — Villanueva offered few hints of the megawatt mystique and the roof-raising power that enabled Tina Turner to sell millions of records and fill arenas.

(Villanueva will be sharing the role with Naomi Rodgers throughout the Boston run, with each actress starring in four performances each week.)


Capturing the distinctive timbre of Turner’s voice is a formidable task for any singer, and Villanueva wasn’t able to pull it off for most of Act One. By Act Two she was sounding more Tina-like, but Villanueva’s vocals sometimes were overwhelmed by the band, who performed from behind an upstage wall.

Turner’s life has already been the subject of her autobiography, “I, Tina”; a 1993 film for which Angela Bassett earned an Oscar nomination; and “Tina,” an HBO documentary. That’s just to name a few. Against that backdrop, “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” feels more like a brand extension than a fresh look at an oft-told story.

Of course, the tale of the woman born Anna Mae Bullock, who spent her early years in Nutbush, Tennessee, is worth telling, with all she had to overcome, and all she became.

“Tina” gets off to a strong start in telling that story with an early church-choir number, “Nutbush City Limits,” that features a terrific Ayvah Johnson as young Anna Mae. In a deft touch, Johnson runs in place while singing, knees pumping, foreshadowing the kind of athletic moves Tina would demonstrate onstage throughout her career. (You get the sense Tina didn’t ever really need a choreographer. “I hear the notes, and I see the movement,” she says as an adult, assured performer.)

“Tina” traces Anna Mae’s turbulent professional and personal journey with Ike Turner (Garrett Turner), which begins when he invites the 17-year-old Anna Mae to take a turn at the microphone while he’s performing at a club in St. Louis. Garrett Turner is equally effective in conveying Ike’s charisma and his coldly controlling manner — as well as, soon enough, his eruptively violent side.


Demonstrating Ike’s need for complete control, he renames her Tina Turner, and soon they’re on tour with the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. In a welcome change-up from the aforementioned narrative linearity, “Tina” fiddles a bit with chronology when it comes to the songs. Early in their relationship, Tina sings “Better Be Good to Me” to Ike — a song that was not released as a single until 1984.

After Tina finally has enough of Ike’s abuse and leaves her marriage, a period of financial and career struggles follow. Then comes the explosive comeback she crafted in the 1980s. Having reached her mid-40s and considered yesterday’s news by a what’s-next culture, Tina decrees: “I want to sing rock ‘n’ roll. It’s time to put the blues behind me. Everything behind me.”

She succeeds, launching a comeback as a solo performer with the 1984 album “Private Dancer,” including the chart-topping, Grammy-winning “What’s Love Got to Do with It.”

Katori Hall, who wrote the book for “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins, is a skilled dramatist who won the Pulitzer Prize last year for “The Hot Wing King” and is the creator of “P-Valley,” an acclaimed series on Starz. But in “Tina,” Hall and her collaborators prove unable to resist taking the kind of short cuts endemic to the jukebox musical. For instance, Act Two features a scene in which Tina and her manager Rhonda (Lael Van Keuren) emotionally proclaim a sister-like bond, even though there’s been scant evidence of any closeness up to that point.


“Tina” chooses to skip over Turner’s film work, which has included vivid turns in “Tommy” (1975) as the Acid Queen and in “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (1985) as Auntie Entity. In a career as wide-ranging and multifaceted as hers, these aren’t fatal omissions. What ultimately undermines “Tina” is that it’s not remotely as special as its subject.


Book by Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Choreographed by Anthony Van Laast. Presented by Broadway In Boston. At Citizens Bank Opera House. Through Oct. 2. Tickets from $49.50. www.BroadwayInBoston.com

Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeAucoin.