Mama Rose in “Gypsy” is the mother of all stage mothers. Zelma in the new musical “Tina” is just as diabolical while also being the polar opposite parent-wise. Mama Rose pushes a daughter into being a stripper to live out her own showbiz fantasy. Zelma abandons Anna-Mae Bullock only to torment her daughter emotionally once she becomes the star Tina Turner.
“Gypsy,” of course, is all about Mama Rose. “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” which opened Thursday at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, is all about Tina Turner (Adrienne Warren) and her abusive relationship with Ike Turner (Daniel J. Watts), the music genius-impresario who discovered the singer and nearly destroyed her. The 1993 movie “What’s Love Got to Do With It” told this bruises-to-stardom story better and in more detail. But “Tina” delivers Zelma, the mother who isn’t there except when she shouldn’t be.
The esteemed playwright Katori Hall (with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins) wrote the book for “Tina” and uncovers real theatrical gold with the mother character, played with unflinching lack of love by Dawnn Lewis. We expect to be shocked when Ike repeatedly slaps and beats Tina, but we know that story. We know it’s coming, even though Watts manages to deliver surprising variations in his depiction of Ike’s bizarre mood swings.
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Zelma doesn’t have mood swings. She’s absolutely consistent, whether admonishing her little girl (strong vocals from Skye Dakota Turner) not to sing so loudly in church or favoring her older sister, Alline (Gloria Manning, Mars Rucker) or abandoning Anna-Mae in a heartbeat or minimizing Tina’s awesome accomplishments or taking Ike’s side at the worst possible moment. There aren’t enough of these scenes, but each of them literally takes the breath away. Hall and Lewis together put a burning spotlight on this woman and neither of them blinks. Not once.
Warren’s performance as Tina is strong in fighting Watts’ Ike, but her real showdown is with Lewis’s Mama Zelma. It’s a stunning scene.
These mother moments alone would make “Tina” better than the recent Cher and Donna Summer musicals on Broadway. But like them, Hall’s book covers too much biographical ground too quickly. What play can tell a whole person’s life? And yet jukebox musical after jukebox musical feels duty-bound to provide a star’s entire life story in under three hours.
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There is Tina Turner’s music, of course, which is a big improvement on Cher or Summer’s. In Act 1, Warren doesn’t sound as if she quite has the chops; her vocals are a little too genteel, but that’s only an illusion. By the time she delivers “Private Dancer,” this actor-singer captures the most expressive bray ever heard from a human being.
Phyllida Lloyd has been acclaimed for her all-female stagings of Shakespeare. With “Tina,” she returns to being the plodding director of “Mamma Mia!” Lloyd shows just how difficult it is to make a musical number work when it begins, ends or is interrupted with Ike punching Tina.
Much of “Tina” takes place in the 1960s and ’70s. Even so, that’s no excuse to have so many Lava Lamp projections (by Jeff Sugg) in one show. It’s Broadway, not someone’s basement.