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'TINA' Review: Zurin Villanueva Shines On Stage

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As the lights come on, the audience hears chanting and gospel circling the stage while a young girl looks over a woman with the unmistakable silhouette of Tina Turner’s iconic blond hair. The opening scene sets the tone of the production: centered on an adult Tina trying to stay true to her young self, hold onto the ones she loves, and stay committed to her faith, all while building a successful career.

“Tina” opened on Broadway in Nov. 2019, but like the rest of shows on at the time, experienced a shutdown that lasted over a year. In the summer of 2022, the show announced its closure on Broadway and set out to take on a national tour. On Wednesday, Sept. 21, the show made its debut at Boston’s Citizens Bank Opera House.

The musical is a retelling of the life and career of Tina Turner, an iconic singer, performer, and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. The audience is taken through her life starting from her childhood in Nutbush, Tennessee, adolescence in St. Louis, to life on the road with Ike Turner, their violent marriage and subsequent divorce. In the second half of the show, Tina exists as a solo artist, taking viewers through her struggle to establish herself separate from Ike and as the Tina known today.

The musical’s strengths, unfortunately, don’t lie in the plot. The storyline consists of short, loosely connected vignettes over a large timespan. The songs — which were not arranged in the order in which they were released — at times felt out of place in the narrative. That being said, the talent of the actors playing Tina, her grandmother, young Anna-Mae, and her mother strengthened the performance enough for audiences to sometimes turn a blid eye at the shortcomings of the plot.

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The true hook of the whole show is the incredible range of voices the cast brings. Stunningly, one of the cleanest and most powerful voices on stage is that of Little Anna-Mae, played by Ayvah Johnson. In an early scene at church, Little Anna-Mae belts out her first chillingly impressive notes. In the span of only a few minutes, she manages to express the complex rollercoaster of emotions of a young child who longs to feel joy, but is put through hell over many years.

Similarly to young Anna-Mae, Gran Georgeanna plays a pivotal part in Tina’s life, reappearing in moments of reflection or doubt. Ann Nesby, who plays the character, is herself a well-established actress and musical artist, a six-time Grammy solo nominee and two-time winner with her group, Sounds of Blackness. These two characters in particular set teenage Anna-Mae, before Ike names her Tina, to become a deeply passionate young woman ready to pursue her dreams at all costs.

Zurin Villanueva, like Tina herself, is phenomenal. She carries the show on her shoulders as a powerhouse in nearly every song, morphing her voice to age as Tina’s voice did through her decades of music-making. If this musical were a Tina Turner cover concert by Villanueva and the band, it might well have been an even greater hit.

The musical doesn’t shy away from trying to show how Turner’s life was affected by abusive men, from her father to her marriage with Ike Turner. Unfortunately, not all the actors were up to the task of delivering seriousness and the attention necessary to portray these relationships. Especially the portrayal of Ike Turner by Garrett Turner, which at times felt unserious, creates a character who was more strange than evil. Throughout the show, Ike speaks and sings in a gravel voice, adding an air of comedy to incredibly serious interactions.

In the end, much of Tina’s life story is lost to the effort of making a complicated, R-rated story into something digestible and PG. This simplification paired with the inconsistency between song and dialogue makes events from Tina Turner’s actual life hard to distinguish from her imaginary and emotional world. However, the plot does well in the scenes where the awareness of awkwardness is clear, like when Tina and Irwin fall for each other to the backtrack of the non-Tina demo of “What’s Love Got to Do with It.”

Despite the plot’s shortcomings, the performance of well-loved songs shines through. As Villanueva, Nesby, and Johnson sang, the audience was transported back in time — as if hearing Tina Turner herself through each moment of her life.

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