If ever a pop star merited a jukebox musical, it is the extraordinary Tina Turner. In addition to a voice that could blow the roof of any theatre, the powerhouse pop star has a back story to match the strength of her back catalogue.
In Olivier Award-winning playwright Katori Hall’s hands, Tina: the Musical becomes much more than your standard story of pop stardom. She and director Phyllida Lloyd (‘Mamma Mia’) elevate it into a quasi pop-rock opera, aware that Turner’s life marries tragedy and triumph, all mapped against America’s history of racial division and discrimination.
Born in Nutbush Tennessee under the name Anna Mae Bullock, she’s first seen unleashing an outrageous voice at the local community church to her mother Zelma’s embarrassment. Given her parents’ turbulent relationship – her mother leaves home with her sister Aline – Anna Mae is bought up by her grandmother Georgeanna and, as a teenager, set to work in the cotton fields.
On visiting her mother and sister in St Louis, she’s spotted at a nightclub by the rising singer songwriter Ike Turner, who chances to hand her the mic mid-song and, blown away by her belt voice, signs her up for his backing band and, in time, as his wife. Anna Mae Bullock becomes Tina Turner.
The story of their marriage is well-documented, rife with drug and domestic abuse, but onstage, it lands with horrible force – and Hall’s book gives Ike’s charisma as much room as his cruelty. It is only on breaking free from their relationship, physically and emotionally bruised, that she starts to take flight on her own path to stardom.
Even so, Tina’s blessed with a score to send audiences soaring. A show that starts with the infectious exuberance of ‘Nutbush City Limits’ builds into a toe-tapping, lust-busting medley over the first half as hit after hit tumbles off the stage: ‘River Deep Mountain High’ raises the tempo and the temperature before ‘Proud Mary’ all but raises the roof.
These are the sort of songs that make a star turn inevitable and Tina – currently played by Nkeki Obi-Melekwe – is the sort of part actors enter pacts with the devil for: a feisty woman with a ferocious talent, fighting for her life in every sense. Every moment she unleashes her voice catches the audience off-guard and, as the second half goes more serious and more strident, working through classics like ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It?’, ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’ and, of course, ‘The Best’, Tina: The Musical only surpasses itself.