nytheatre.com review by Alyssa Simon
July 7, 2006
I thought River Deep, A Tribute To Tina Turner would be one of those new musicals where all of her songs would be sung and danced to with the flimsiest of plots holding it together as justification—and I was perfectly fine with that. Not necessarily with the new popularity of so-called "jukebox" musicals, but who doesn't like Tina Turner? Why not just enjoy an hour and a half of listening to all her great songs and watching dancers repeat her famous moves, backed up by a rocking band?
But this show does something different. It expresses a point of view through original choreography and a terrific original score that elevates it beyond sheer entertainment and answers the question other tribute musicals often don't bother to ask. What inspired the show's creators to honor this entertainer?
Director and choreographer Gabrielle Lansner gives context and her own meaning to the well-known powerhouse shimmies and struts of Tina Turner by combining interpretive movement created through collaboration with her talented cast, Pat Hall, Erica Bowen, Zainab Jah, Heather Lind, Paula McGonagle, and McKenzie Frye. The fast-as-lightning leg stomping is a declaration of independence and joy till the dancers also start beating their chests with their hands, creating images of personal conflict, self-loathing, and literally running in place.
In one of the most emotionally moving parts of the evening, the fabulous Pat Hall, a powerhouse herself, dances to "Tina's Chant," backed up by haunting vocals from the rest of the cast (everyone sings, dances and acts). Turner is known for becoming a Buddhist and in this number, signature moves of Turner are slowed down and interspersed with movement signifying loss, pain, self-reflection, and ultimate strength. Hall intelligently uses her body to create portrayals of conflicting emotion and the same finger snap or arm extension can mean different things according to where her character is emotionally in the dance.
All the songs are composed by Philip Hamilton, with the exception of "Just Let Me Know" written with Andy Ezrin and "In Your Wildest Dreams" written by Holly Night and Michael Chapman. Hamilton's "Treat You Like A Lady" ("If he doesn't treat you like a lady / you know there's something shady") could have been a number one hit for a girl group in the '60s, and "In Your Wildest Dreams" sounds like it was written for a top artist like Cassandra Wilson. As sung by Hall, she makes it her own. The band is also top notch, with Alex Alexander (drums), Spiros Exaras and Chieli Minucci (guitar), Trevor Exter (electric cello), Daniel Mintseris (keyboards) and backup singer Shekitra Starke.
The show is beautiful to watch not only because of the performers, but also the costumes, pure Tina-style sequined minidresses designed by Liz Prince; purple concert lighting by Jim French; video backdrops for the dancers by Stephanie Berger; and a fantastic rock-and-roll glossy black dance floor by set designer Dean Taucher.
In between the songs and dance numbers are monologues adapted by Lansner from Turner's autobiography I, Tina. Although very well acted by all, special mention must be given to Heather Lind's very funny and yet harrowing telling of a story from the first person account of Bonnie Bramlett, the only white singer traveling with Ike Turner's band through the Deep South in the '60s. Nevertheless, these sections of the show feel almost like an over-explanation. Much is known about Turner's life and her struggles with abuse, poverty, and comeback through movies, books, and interviews. The use of original movement and songs to celebrate her life is so interesting and reveals so much that stopping to talk, even though they are Turner's own words, seems to stop the momentum.
However, with the cast's energy and talent, the show picks right up again, taking the audience along. If this was just an enjoyable "jukebox" musical, I could say, "Go see River Deep, A Tribute To Tina Turner! It's got legs!" Fortunately, it also has a brain and heart.