REVIEW: This Australian-Zimbabwean is a triumphant Tina Turner

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Tina  The Tina Turner Musical, Sydney’s Theatre Royal, May 18

By Michael Bailey

Needless to say, the success or otherwise of Tina – The Tina Turner Musical will hinge on who is playing the icon of soul and rock’n’roll.

And wow, producer Paul Dainty has found a standout for his Australian version of this Broadway hit from 2019.

You’ve probably never heard of Ruva Ngwenya, an Australian of Zimbabwean heritage who’s been hoofing it in bit parts and jazz clubs for years, but judging by Thursday’s opening-night performance, you won’t forget her after seeing this.

Playing one of the world’s most famous living people must be intimidating, but Ngwenya took to the challenge with relish, singing and dancing up a storm and acting out Turner’s emotional trials and triumphs such that suspending disbelief was guaranteed – especially when she donned “that” wig. (“Looks like a cat’s been sucking on it,” Tina’s mum tells her.)

But this was no mere act of mimicry. Sure, there were times when Ngwenya chose to channel Turner – those clipped phrases in the verses of Better Be Good To Me were spot on – but her own spirit was evident throughout, a sense that she was seizing this opportunity and, much like our titular hero did in her career, running with it for all it was worth. In high heels.

The musical mostly lived up to the strength of its leading lady.

We’re all at least vaguely familiar with Turner’s journey from Nutbush, Tennessee, to Nutbush City Limits and unlikely megastardom in the 1980s, but it’s a story that bears retelling and is briskly handled here, helped along by Turner’s uncanny habit of writing or choosing songs that reflect what has gone on in her life.

The early scenes set around the Nutbush church house were raw and moving, and established this cast – dominated by Australians of African heritage – as talented performers who deserve more breaks like this.

Aimee Bah as young Tina (then known as Anna-Mae Bullock) was especially impressive, a huge voice belying her years.

Tim Omaji was another standout in the tricky role of Ike Turner. Portrayed as a cartoon villain in the 1993 biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It, the pioneer of rock’n’roll received a more nuanced treatment here. The production didn’t flinch from his violent, coercive control of Tina, but made some attempt to explain the racism and childhood trauma that marked him (although his diagnosis this century with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder wasn’t mentioned).

Those confronting interludes gave the music an added sense of release, with an infusion of joy whenever Ngwenya was joined by her Ikettes – their choreography was a twirling, toe-tapping tour de force.

There was plenty for music nerds too. Hilarity ensued when Tina met her manager, the Australian Roger Davies (played with oh-so-’80s hair and vibe by Mat Verevis) and searched for a hit with her polar opposites in Heaven 17. Some deep-catalogue gems such as Don’t Turn Around were revived in service of the story.

The staging was often sparse – Ngwenya singing and shimmying with just a microphone was compelling enough – but there were moments of great invention, such as that illustrating Tina’s transition from washed-up to cleaning up, epitomised by the arena rock finale of Simply The Best.

The 10-piece band deftly handled the wide range of musical styles required of them – from the honking blues of Ike’s Matchbox to the one more typical “musical” ballad, Open Arms. Meanwhile, all that processed ’80s guitar was masterfully reproduced by Rex Goh, who helped invent the style in the first place as a member of Air Supply.

By the nature of its source material, Tina was not always comfortable viewing, but it was certainly cathartic. The confines of the Theatre Royal didn’t keep the audience from doing the Nutbush moves with gusto, after they’d given Ngwenya and the cast a deserved long ovation.

Tina – The Tina Turner Musical is at Theatre Royal until October.