Australia’s affection for Tina Turner might seem perplexing to outsiders, but when a voice weaves its way through shared cultural experiences, it starts to sound a lot like a heartbeat.
Maybe your Tina is the voice of the NRL, when in the 1990s, her cover of Bonnie Tyler’s The Best became the rallying cry of the sport and played a key role in reshaping the code’s image. The Australian Roger Davies, Turner’s manager, performed a kind of magic when he struck these deals – he wove Turner’s songs, all hard-won fire, into the national consciousness. (One of his current clients, pop powerhouse Pink, is more popular in Australia than anywhere else in the world.)
Maybe your Tina lives on as Aunty Entity of 1985’s Mad Max sequel; or as the singer of Thunderdome hit We Don’t Need Another Hero. Or maybe your Tina has been with you since PE class, where you learned a simple and downright irresistible line dance to Nutbush City Limits that became an Australian wedding party staple. (The dance recently trended on TikTok, baffling the rest of the world.)
This voice that has soundtracked so many Australian rituals, and now we have a new way to celebrate it. Tina: the Tina Turner musical has landed at Sydney’s Theatre Royal after its 2018 West End debut and subsequent Broadway run, and with Ruva Ngwenya in the title role, it’s like a goddess appearing before the faithful: we rose as one body, on opening night, to cheer for her.
After the success of shows like Jersey Boys and Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, you may think you know what to expect from a bio-jukebox musical: slick production values, positive spins on hard times, and all the biggest numbers. But like Turner herself, the musical defies expectations.
To answer the most pressing question: the hits are there, and they are glorious. Led by musical director Christina Polimos, the band gets tighter and tighter until, by the end of the show, they could blow the roof off the Theatre Royal. But the numbers don’t always move chronologically, and it’s a little jarring when a song appears in her story years before she ever recorded it. Still, jukebox musicals don’t have to be linear; you use the song where it best fits the story.
The story is the challenge. Written by Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Katori Hall, with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins, Turner served as executive producer and was key to the musical’s narrative development. She has said that the process of creating the musical has afforded her newfound peace about the horrors of her early life, which might explain its surprising tone: it’s an exorcism.
Racism, family violence, addiction, attempted suicide, financial ruin – it’s all here, and it isn’t subtle. The book – ambitious but clunky – depicts Turner’s trauma with care, but without politeness. It’s often hard to watch.
The bio-jukebox style is often criticised for collapsing its star subjects into their most inoffensive, straightforward versions. To its credit, Tina avoids that: it is committed to honouring Turner’s indomitable will to survive. It helps that Tim Omaji plays Ike Turner, whose addiction and abuse shaped Turner’s early career. A grounded and emotionally present performer, he manages to portray a man often referred to by characters onstage as the devil without sucking all the air out of the room.
Still, I’m not sure the audience knows what to do with the general approach; in multiple graphic scenes, we see Ike strangle and punch his wife and hit and push his child, and it’s horrifying and upsetting. But it’s also strange to hear crowds cheer for Tina when she responds with violence of her own.
Directed by Phyllida Llloyd (Australia’s resident director is Leah Howard), Tina has a problem with tone and transition – it struggles to move from moments of despair to those of joy and growth within the vernacular of musical theatre. You can even see it in the choreography (by Anthony Van Laast, who choreographed the Mamma Mia musical film and its sequel): when it references Turner’s own onstage performances, it’s electric and builds character; but when it comes to the big ensemble numbers – the business of commercial musicals – it feels silly and muddles the plot. The second act is much brighter – and funnier – which is disconcerting, but also a relief. Mat Verevis plays Roger Davies with refreshing lightness, and Matthew Prime arrives as Turner’s next husband Erwin Bach, to usher in a new sweetness.
It wouldn’t come together without Ngwenya, a revelation playing a revelation. She carries Turner’s legacy in her throat. Her voice is powerful, supple, and mutable: depending on the song, it’s like a prayer, a promise, or a weapon. Like Turner, she evolves. It’s not until Tina’s career progresses and Ngwenya grows to a full-throated roar that we realise the whole first act was an impressive showcase of her balance and restraint.
Can a musical contain beauty and ugliness at once? It can, even if it’s unwieldy. You see it most clearly as we watch Tina record River Deep, Mountain High with Phil Spector (John O’Hara), an abuser himself. After a few lacklustre bars, he stops her. “Sing to the god that’s in yourself,” he tells her. “Do you know what that feels like?”
Something shifts. She says that she does.
And when Ngwenya opens her mouth and begins to sing, we know what it feels like too.
Tina: the Tina Turner musical is playing now at the Theatre Royal, Sydney until 22 October