We are, frankly, tired of bio-musicals, having been bored by the overly sanitized Beautiful and frustrated by the slick but unsatisfying Jersey Boys. Others have littered our theater-going, with only On Your Feet! coming close to being both entertaining and dramatic enough to justify bio-musicals in the future. It isn't that we don't care for the catalogs of music that have gotten such treatment, or the lives of their subjects. But somehow, more often than not, these lives get the Wikipedia/Behind the Music treatment, which is to say, they simply aren't dramatic. Was Carole King's life really that easily solved and sunny? Other times, these vehicles are so over produced/directed that it feels like everyone involved is trying to put one over on us, like we won't notice if it is loud enough and never stops moving. Seriously, couldn't the fake Four Seasons sing one song all the way through?
Though I'm certain living the reality of parental rejection and spousal abuse was way more horrifying that it was portrayed on stage, it is to the show's credit that this isn't ignored or minimized. It was uncomfortable to watch as it was. Katori Hall's book (with an assist from Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins) vividly depicts the familial cycle of abuse, emotional, physical and sexual. There is also plenty of coarse language, and disturbing racism. Harsh and occasionally shocking in its execution, the book provides the dramatic tension necessary for any musical to work. The score, made up of Turner's greatest hits and a few period songs, more often than not hits the mark and works in the story. Only one time did it really seem awkward and forced - "We Don't Need Another Hero" as a justification for cremation is, well... That said, the song itself, like all of the others, is beautifully arranged (by Nicholas Skilbeck, a skilled musician) and sung. No snippets here, each number is sung in its full version, thank goodness.
|Myra Lucretia Taylor (right) with Adrienne Warren|
The large, multi-talented cast is full of quadruple threats. What dancers! It was exhausting just watching them. Watching the company go full out on "Proud Mary" not once, but twice, was a genuine thrill. Featured in supporting roles, Jessica Rush (as one of Ike and Tina's managers) and Charlie Frankin (as Tina's solo manager, Aussie Roger Davies) were standouts as defenders of our heroine. Mars Rucker positively glows as Alline, Tina's sister, and Mehret Marsh as young Anna-Mae, earns screams of approval with a voice five times as big as her diminutive stature. The piece is grounded by the warm and wise presence of the marvelous Myra Lucretia Taylor as Tina's beloved grandmother.
|Daniel J. Watts as Ike Turner|
|Nkeki Obi-Melekwe as Tina Turner|
If you find yourself at a performance where Nkeki Obi-Melekwe plays Tina Turner, do not despair. She is a brilliant performer, who, even from the mid-mezzanine, seemed larger than life. Wisely, she does not do an imitation of Turner - I mean, who really could? Rather, she does an "approximation" which works perfectly. But when she sings, WOW! I'm pretty sure the audience over at Tootsie can hear her. Seriously though, whether she is blasting through a powerhouse rendition of "River Deep - Mountain High," or quietly emoting through "Private Dancer" or "What's Love Got to Do with It," she owns the stage and our hearts. What talent.
Will bio-musicals ever be our favorite kind of show? Not likely. But from now on, we won't make too many preconceived judgments ahead of time. And, guess what? When it tours, we plan on seeing Tina again!
📸: J. Kyler, M. Harlan