Theater reviews: Jukebox musicals rock to Tina Turner, Go-Go's

Posted May 02, 2023 in Articles

Author: Howie Gollop - The Chronicle-Telegram

Jukebox musicals are still erupting on Broadway and national tours. This musical-theater staple strives for nothing more creative than a device to pile on a lot of hit songs onto a flimsy plot, be it a Cliffs Notes biography of the songwriter or a slightly dramatized revue. The predictable result is a mildly entertaining but ultimately forgettable enterprise. Fortunately, there are exceptions to the rule.

'Tina: The Tina Turner Musical'

The initial striking image of "Tina: The Tina Turner Musical" is not the star herself, but a spotlight on her hairdo — that iconic 1980s-style golden shag emblematic of the R&B legend's comeback as a solo superstar of that decade.

Quickly, the script (book) by the threesome of Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins dispels any notions that this is some Las Vegas lookalike "Legends" extravaganza. Mark Thompson's mercurial set and projections quickly morph from one of Tina Turner's iconic mega-concerts into a collage of her early life in rural Bible-belt Jim-Crow-era Tennessee. That's when Tina was still going by her birth name of Anna-Mae, portrayed as a musically precocious child (portrayed by the endearing powerhouse Ayvah Johnson), influenced by religion and mysticism.

The show follows an adult Anna-Mae — played by the equally powerful Naomi Rodgers (alternating in other performances by Zurin Villaneuva) — as she navigates through an abusive family life from the cotton fields of Tennessee with her unloving mother (a compelling Roz White). She soon endures the strained romantic life in 1950s St. Louis with the physically and mentally abusive Ike Turner (unflinchingly played by Garrett Turner). Throughout, the songs made famous by her and her husband cannily compliment the drama as if they had been written exclusively for the show as a traditional musical.

Tina Turner's life was complex, and this show befittingly extends well beyond the normal back-stage drug-abuse tropes of all too many pop stars and their namesake jukebox musicals. Uncompromisingly directed by Phyllida Lloyd, the show never flinches or soft-focuses the star's formidable battles for love, independence and success on her own terms.

Unlike most celeb bios where the first act marks a rise to the top, only to be undone with the pitfalls of fame in the second act, "Tina" does the opposite. After a foreboding first act, "Tina" brings the heroine to a triumphant musical finale that's just as extravagant but far more dramatically resonant than any Vegas look-alike revue. No show or performer can match the sheer electricity of Tina herself, but "Tina" the musical makes up for it with sheer dramatic resonance.

'Head Over Heels'

A different sort of jukebox musical also begins in the 1980s — 1980s style, that is.

In Near West Theatre's jubilant "Head over Heels," an assortment of 16th-century (mostly) royal denizens of the Welsh land of Pembroke deal with a Shakespearean-sized assortment of romantic and mystical twists and turns as they burst out singing a treasure-trove of the greatest hits of none other than the Go-Go's.

Adapted by Jeff Whitty and James Magruder from the pastoral romance "The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia" by Shakespeare contemporary Sir Phillip Sidney, costume designer Stephen Ostertag' mixes Elizabethan garb with clever variations of the styles from early MTV videos by Cindy Lauper and Madonna in Near West Theatre's "Head over Heels” production.

Befittingly, Derek Green's scenery, creatively lit by Jeremy Paul, creates a deceptively sober wood-tone backdrop reminiscent of renderings of Shakespeare's Globe theater that lends visual irony to the many carnival-colored new-age set pieces.

The vernacular is clearly Elizabethan, with more than a few Shakespeare-style tropes of cross-dressing and gender confusion. But this adaptation, which had a half-year Broadway run in 2018, ingeniously pushes the boundaries into exultation of gender fluidity and gay romance.

Near West Theatre's energetic nonprofessional cast of varying abilities could easily leave this musical mashup a mess, were it not for the slick professionalism and creativity of director Trinidad Snider and choreographer Kristy Cruz, plus the rocking musical direction of Jordan Cooper. Even audience members who may not be in sync with the show's politics succumb easily to the new-wave beat of The Go-Go's.

Contact Howard Gollop at


WHAT: KeyBank Broadway Series at Playhouse Square presents “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical”
WHEN: through May 14 (times vary)
WHERE: Connor Palace, 1615 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
TICKETS: $25 to $120
INFO: (216) 241-6000 or


WHAT: “Head Over Heels”
WHEN: through May 7 (times vary)
WHERE: Near West Theatre, 6702 Detroit Ave., Cleveland
TICKETS: $15 suggested (or pay what you can)
INFO: (216) 961-6391 or

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