A dazzling and kinetic Tina Turner musical biography goes for nearly three hours at the Golden Gate Theatre, but the musical stylings of a ten-year-old playing a young Tina are simply the best moments of the show.  

The jukebox musical Tina - The Tina Turner Musical, playing through August 27 at the Golden Gate Theatre, is not some rush job that was hastily put together after the singer’s death this past May. The show premiered in London in 2018, and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith won the Olivier Award for his portrayal of Ike Turner in that production. It hit Broadway in 2019, where Adrienne Warren won the Tony Award for Leading Actress for her performance of Tina Turner.

So this is proven award-winning material, but if anyone’s winning any national awards in this production, it will be ten-year-old Ayvah Johnson for her remarkable singing, dancing, and presence as the little girl version of Tina Turner (technically, Anna-Mae Bullock, prior to the singer’s name change).

Ayvah Johnson as 'Young Anna-Mae' and the cast of the North American touring production of TINA – THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

We meet Johnson early as Young Anna-Mae, in a version of Turner’s “Nutbush City Limits” that shows this musical is going to use several of these hit numbers to express plot points, not just as big production numbers. The visual backdrops for these plot-point numbers achieve stunning effects, like the cotton fields seen above. And the first half of the show is a memorable musical treatise on race relations and sexism in 20th Century America.

And of course, domestic violence. The adult Tina Turner will alternate by night between Naomi Rodgers and Zurin Villanueva. We got Villanueva Wednesday night, and she’s definitely up to the task of the challenging choreography, a demanding vocal role, and a character working through a deep amount of personal pain. (Though some of the wigs are, well, unconvincing). The pompadoured savior-turned-abuser Ike Turner (Roderick Lawrence) gives a convincing and very human study of emotional manipulation and drug addiction. Interestingly, the stagecraft of domestic violence scenes is structured so the actors’ bodies are always blocking your view of the actual strike, so the audience never directly sees someone being hit.

Zurin Villanueva as Tina Turner in TINA THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL.jpg

There are a number of great comical notes for the background dancers, though it does feel a lost opportunity that the Phil Spector character (Geoffrey Kidwell) isn’t played more villainously, and comes across as just a garden-variety show business sleazebag. And despite an absolutely soaring first act, the second act portraying Turner’s 80s comeback lacks anywhere near the drama or interesting characters we see in the first half of the show.

But Tina - The Tina Turner Musical has many spectacular moments over its two hours and 45 minutes, including a sort of gay disco scene in the rousing finale numbers. It doesn't cover a ton of ground that wasn’t already covered in the 1993 Angela Bassett vehicle What's Love Got to Do With It. But it does cover that ground with top-notch stage effects and choreography, plus one of the most memorable performances by a ten-year-old that you’ll ever see onstage.

Tina - The Tina Turner Musical plays through August  27 at the Golden Gate Theatre. Tickets here.

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Top photo: Naomi Rodgers as Tina Turner in the North American touring production of TINA THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL. Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade.