‘Tina’ the musical takes time to find its groove

Zurin Villanueva as ‘Tina Turner’ and the cast of the North American touring production of TINA – THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL.  Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

By Rich Fahey

BOSTON – She was born Anna Mae Bullock in Tennessee, a name she has owned and treasured her entire life. But she became a star as Tina Turner, the name Ike Turner bestowed on her and the one she rode through the good and the bad on the way to becoming an international star.

“Tina: The Tina Turner Story,” now at the Citizens Bank Opera House through Oct. 2, is not your typical jukebox musical; it takes many dark turns before Tina is reborn and ultimately triumphant.

But getting there is a testament to her perseverance, and sometimes, it requires the audience to show the same kind of perseverance in getting to the good stuff: The music.

And while we are all-in on Tina’s struggles, we don’t get the full Tina – the Queen of Rock and Roll in all her rock star glory – until the final triumphant scenes.   

The role of Anna Mae/Tina is heavy lifting for any actor and is being shared in Boston by Zurin Villaneuva and Naomi Rodgers; Villanueva performed the role on press night. Not only will both be involved in 22 musical numbers with constant movement, but there are harrowing scenes of physical and mental abuse that can’t be easy to do each night.

Zurin Villanueva as ‘Tina Turner’ in the North American touring production of TINA – THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL.  Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

Tina’s childhood was tumultuous. When Anna Mae was 11, her mother Zelma (Roz White), who was abused by her husband Richard (Carlton Terrence Taylor), left for St. Louis with daughter Aline. Richard remarried and left Anna Mae to be raised by her Gran Georgeanna (Ann Nesey). a warm, loving presence in her life.

Anna Mae was 16 when she eventually rejoined her mother and Aline in St. Louis, where she first met Ike Turner (Garrett Turner) and his band The Kings of Rhythm  at Club Manhattan, where Anna Mae’s singing dazzled Ike. He turned on his considerable charm – and he had, when he wanted, charm to spare — to persuade Zelma to allow her to tour with the band.

Ike Turner, who died in 2007, rechristened Anna Mae as Tina Turner in 1959 and the Ike and Tina Turner Revue was born. She married Ike in Tiajuana in 1962, even after enduring many episodes of abuse.

The portrayal of the many examples of physical and mental abuse that the late Ike Turner meted out still draw horrified gasps and groans in the audience, even as we know what went on in their 16 tumultuous years of marriage.

Even when Tina is finally able to escape Ike’s clutches, her finances and career crumble as a solo act, as she is prohibited from doing the many songs she and Ike made famous.

As Tina, Villanueva has all the moves but is only able to truly replicate the full Tina experience late in Act II. After leaving Ike, she flounders and then is born again doing the numbers she always wanted to do, once again reclaiming the mantle of Queen of Rock and Roll.  

Every stop that could be is pulled out is in the “Simply the Best” finale, when Mark Thompson’s sets and glittery costumes, Bruno Poet’s lighting, Nevin Steinberg’s sound design, and Jeff Sugg’s projections all combine to give the audience a realistic replication of who the reborn Tina was.  

The book by acclaimed playwright Katori Hall bends and shapes Tina’s actual story to fit a prescribed narrative. “Tina” never really takes off until Tina becomes the Tina we knew and loved after her comeback with the “Private Dancer” album and subsequent hits such as “What’s Love Got to Do With it?” and “We Don’t Need Another Hero” from the movie “Mas Max: Beyond Thunderdome.”

Director Phillyda Lloyd (“Mama Mia!”) does her best to balance the angst and the music – not always successfully — and choreographer Anthony Van Laast’s movement captures Tina’s frenetic, innate ability to shake it like no other has before or since.

After all she endured, it was right and just that Tina eventually found happiness with German record executive Erwin Bach, whom she married in 2013 after 25 years together. Tina and Bach served as executive producers of the show, which cost an eye-popping $16.5 million to produce on Broadway.

“Tina” does a good job with the hard road she traveled into becoming an international superstar, but you’ll have to wait a while to see that superstar in action.

The national touring production of “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.” At the Citizens Bank Opera House through Oct. 2. Broadwayinboston.com

0458: Zurin Villanueva as ‘Tina Turner’ in the North American touring production of TINA – THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL.  Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade