Theater review: Fox Theatre show explores why Tina Turner was simply the best

Credit: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

Credit: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

The abuse started young for Tina Turner, and so did the music.

Born Anna Mae Bullock in 1939, the loud-singing little Tennessee girl witnessed her mother get slapped around by her father, and eventually went to live with her Baptist grandparents. Later, when she hooked up with band leader Ike Turner, the cycle of violence spiraled.

In real life and in the hard-punching musical biography at the Fox Theatre through Sunday, there is an aura of Cinderella. By the end of this rags-to-sequins saga, Turner will be hailed as the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll. She’ll find her prince, and realize the inner peace of a Baptist-turned-Buddhist. Yet she will be knocked down many times along the way.

What redeems her is her gift.

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd and choreographed by Anthony Van Laast, “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” gives the performer’s genre-hopping catalog a dazzling workout. “Better Be Good to Me,” “Proud Mary,” “Private Dancer,” “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Let’s Stay Together.” The show delivers all these hits, and then some.

As portrayed by Zurin Villanueva (who alternates the role with Naomi Rodgers), Turner is a tempest of raw energy who spins, grinds, belts and thrusts her way into orbit. Like Turner, Villanueva at times seems to chew on her lyrics. Tenderness, though she may have longed for it in her personal life, was never Turner’s terrain. She finds her power in nasality, gutsiness and grit.

Credit: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

Credit: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

As Ike Turner, Garrett Turner packs toxic brutality under the affected mannerisms of a showman, high on cocaine. His behavior shocks us, just as Tina’s father’s did. Ike is as vicious as a snake — even his wardrobe has a reptilian sheen. Such is his ability to slither and seduce that Tina’s mother (played by the wonderful Roz White) takes his side until the bitter end, by which I mean from her own deathbed.

Tina’s journey — her relationships with family members, suitors and business partners, including Phil Spector (Geoffrey Kidwell), Roger Davies (Zachary Freier-Harrison) and Erwin Bach (Max Falls) — is long and winding. As is often the case with jukebox musicals, this treatment (book is by Atlanta playwright Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins) goes for epic highs and lows, yet after the big moments — the rejections, the overdosing, the financial ruin — we don’t feel much of the icon’s inner complexity.

Credit: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

Credit: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

As Turner’s journey peaks and troughs, we revisit the young Anna-Mae (the lovely Aniya Simone), in a scene in which she performs the David Bowie-Iggy Pop classic “Tonight.” A number that’s perhaps intended to wipe away the tears and imbue us with hope, it feels a bit heavy-handed. Rather than tugging at the heartstrings, it made me cringe.

“Tina” is nothing if not a big, splashy Broadway spectacle, a status that is backed up by some top-notch design. Whereas Mark Thompson’s sets tend to be minimal (a doorway, a bed, a sofa), his sexy, shimmering costumes are anything but. Bruno Poet helps tell the story with his sensitive lighting, and Jeff Sugg’s projections, by turns hallucinogenic and mod, are pure eye candy, an ideal backdrop for a musical landscape that encompasses church music, soul, R&B, disco and rock.

This is an imperfect show with a near-perfect songbook. After near tragedy, Tina triumphs. She is, to put it plainly, simply the best.


“Tina: The Tina Turner Musical”

Through Sunday. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday. 8 p.m. Friday. 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday. 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. $39-$99. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 855-285-8499;

Bottom line: Exhilarating