“Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” Raises the Roof at the Keller Auditorium

The venue hosts the nationwide tour of the musical biography of the late Queen of Rock ‘n Roll.

Tina: The Tina Turner Musical (Courtesy of Fabulocitypdx)

If Tina Turner were to see the crowds coming around the block both ways at Keller Auditorium to see the musical about her life, whose production she personally approved, she would undoubtedly smile.

Since opening at London’s West End in 2018, Tina: The Tina Turner Musical has dazzled audiences worldwide, including in America where the show debuted on Broadway in 2019. Olivier winner Katori Hall took over writing the book for this “bio-musical” from the first draft by Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins.

In The Guardian, Hall highlighted the play’s topicality in the #MeToo era. She consciously depicts the violence of Turner’s true life, including her first husband Ike Turner’s domestic abuse.

After three years, including a long pandemic-related suspension, the show left Broadway to embark on a North American tour, with shows scheduled through August 2024. Between San Jose and Seattle is Portland’s turn, with Tina playing at Keller Auditorium from Sept. 5 through 10.

Opening the first act, Ayvah Johnson plays the child Anna-Mae Bullock in Nutbush, Tenn., where her mother leaves her abusive husband, while also abandoning Anna-Mae. Naomi Rodgers (alternating with Zurin Villanueva) takes over the role for adolescent Anna-Mae and adult Tina. At the urging of her spiritually inclined Gran Georgeanna (Wydetta Carter), teenage Anna-Mae moves back in with her mother and sister in St. Louis.

There, Anna-Mae meets Ike Turner (Roderick Lawrence), who falls in love with her and invites her into his band as Tina Turner. Ike proves charismatic, passionate and violent; acts like throwing a cymbal at Tina, or snorting cocaine, or battering Tina repeatedly, drain the air out of the theater. When “River Deep, Mountain High” flops stateside, Ike (no stranger to racism himself, from motel owners and cops alike) cruelly insinuates that it’s her fault for being a Black woman about whom white Americans of the time wouldn’t care.

An intense performance of “Proud Mary” brings Tina, and the crowd with her, to the breaking point. She goes to a hotel alone, bleeding, begging the manager to let her stay the night.

The second act climbs from this river to the mountain of Tina’s ‘80s comeback era as the Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll, traveling to London to record new music. She battles her inner demons (Ike looms behind the dancers during “I Can’t Stand the Rain”) and critiques the producers’ humorously energetic synthesizer demo of “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” Soon, she finds inspiration in her budding relationship with Erwin Bach (Max Falls), her Buddhist mantra, and Johnson personifying her inner child.

Ultimately, she concludes the show glamorously with “The Best,” followed by a perfectly in-character encore where she encourages the audience to sing and dance along to “Nutbush City Limits” and (together with Johnson and her voice beyond her years) “Proud Mary.” The audience was only too happy to stand up and oblige.

With Keller in need of seismic renovation, the Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll does the finest possible job raising the roof to get it started.

SEE IT: Tina: The Tina Turner Musical plays at the Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St., 503-248-4335, portland5.com. 7:30 pm Friday-Saturday, 2 pm Saturday and 1 pm and 6:30 pm Sunday through Sept. 10. Tickets start at $34.75.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.