On Stage: ‘Tina’ tops wide rage of theater options in the area

By Denny Dyroff, Entertainment Editor, The Times

Tina – the Tina Turner Musical

The calendar for late November and December each year always features a plethora Christmas and holiday events.

Fortunately, for those who seek a brief respite from the full onslaught of holiday activities, special sales and the endless ringing of Salvation Army bells, there are several top-flight theater productions scheduled for the next few weeks.

Now through December 4, “Tina – the Tina Turner Musical” is running on Philadelphia’s Kimmel Cultural Campus at the historic Academy of Music. This engagement is hosted by the Kimmel Cultural Campus and The Shubert Organization.

“Tina — The Tina Turner Musical” is a jukebox musical featuring the music of Tina Turner and depicting her life from her humble beginnings in Nutbush, Tennessee, to her transformation into a rock and roll star. It is the story of the life journey of Anna Mae Bullock.

Anna Mae Bullock was born on November 26, 1939 in Brownsville, Tennessee and was the youngest daughter of Zelma and Floyd Bullock. Who lived in the nearby rural unincorporated community of Nutbush, Tennessee.

Bullock had two older sisters, Evelyn Juanita Currie and Ruby Alline Bullock, a songwriter. As young children, the three sisters were separated when their parents relocated to Knoxville, Tennessee, to work at a defense facility during World War II. After the war, the sisters reunited with their parents and moved with them to Knoxville.

As a young girl, Bullock sang in the church choir at Nutbush’s Spring Hill Baptist Church. When she was 11, her mother Zelma ran off without warning, seeking freedom from her abusive relationship with Floyd by relocating to St. Louis in 1950. Two years after her mother left the family, her father married another woman and moved to Detroit in 1952. Bullock and her sisters were sent to live with their maternal grandmother, Georgeanna Currie in Brownsville, Tennessee.

Bullock and her sister began to frequent nightclubs in St. Louis and East St. Louis. She first saw Ike Turner perform with his band the Kings of Rhythm at the Manhattan Club in East St. Louis. Bullock was impressed by his talent and asked Turner to let her sing in his band despite the fact that few women had ever sung with him. Turner said he’d call her but never did.

One night in 1957, she got hold of the microphone from Kings of Rhythm drummer Eugene Washington during an intermission and she sang the B.B. King blues ballad, “You Know I Love You.” Upon hearing her sing, Turner asked her if she knew more songs. She sang the rest of the night and became a featured vocalist with his band. During this period, he taught her the finer points of vocal control and performance.

Bullock was introduced to the public as Tina Turner with the single, “A Fool In Love,” in July 1960. It reached No. 2 on the Hot R&B Sides chart and No. 27 on the Billboard Hot 100. After the release of “A Fool in Love,” Ike created the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, which included the Kings of Rhythm and a girl group, the Ikettes, as backing vocalists and dancers. He remained in the background as the bandleader.

Anna Mae Bullock was on her way to a roller coaster ride of a music career as Tina Turner.

Now, Turner’s life and career is being celebrated with “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical.”

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd with a book by Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar, and Kees Prins, the musical had its world premiere in April 2018 at the Aldwych Theatre in London. The Broadway production opened on in November 2019 and was nominated for 12 Tony® Awards, including Best Musical. The production reopened at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in October 2021 following the 18-month industry wide shut down due to the COVID 19 pandemic.

The cast is led by Naomi Rodgers (Frozen) and Zurin Villanueva (The Lion King, Mean Girls, Shuffle Along, The Book of Mormon), who will evenly share the role of Tina Turner, each playing four (of eight) performances a week. Also starring are Garrett Turner as Ike Turner, Roz White as Zelma Bullock, Ann Nesby as Gran Georgeanna, and Lael Van Keuren as Rhonda.

On September 11, 2022, the highly energetic production embarked on a North American Tour opening at the Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC) in Providence, Rhode Island.

“We’ve been out for a couple months,” said Garrett Turner, during a phone interview last week from a tour stop in Baltimore.

“We’ve had some good sit-downs – three weeks in D.C., two weeks in Cincinnati and two in Boston. We’re all up and down the East Coast for the first art of the tour.”

Garrett didn’t arrive for the show with pre-conceived ideas about who or what Ike Turner was.

“Growing up, I knew Ike and Tina peripherally,” said Turner. “I knew ‘Proud Mary’ and one of their other hits. We played more Stevie Wonder at home.

“I grew up singing in church – singing a capella at the Church of Christ. I went on from there to sing a capella in college and professionally. There is a rich tradition in my background.”

Like Ike and Tina, Turner grew up in the South. After attending school in Florence, Alabama, he earned a degree for Atlanta’s Emory University in music and creative writing.

“I’ve written a draft of a musical and a couple drafts of plays,” said Turner. “My vocal performances have mostly been classical – German lieder and Italian singing.

“I have a wonderful range. I take care of myself and my spirit. I have a ritual before and after every show. I’m a baritone – and that helps with playing Ike Turner.”

Turner has a first-hand knowledge about being an African American musician from the South.

“I feel a very firm link to the Black music of the South,” said Turner. “Florence is just across the Tennessee River from Muscle Shoals and the FAME Studio.”

Muscle Shoals is the home of FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) Studios is a recording studio located at 603 East Avalon Avenue. The legendary studio has been used by international superstars such as Wilson Pickett, the Allman Brothers, the Rolling Stones, and Aretha Franklin.

“There is a real rich tradition there,” said Turner. “There is a strong and rich history of music from where I grew up.”

Ike Turner had a dark side. He was abusive to women and to his band. He was a shady character with a history of doing drugs. His abusive ways eventually led to the split with Tina.

“Ike suffered abuse growing up,” said Turner. “His father was lynched. As a child, he was sexually abused.”

Ike Turner was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi in November 1931. According to Turner, he witnessed his father beaten and left for dead by a white mob. He was later told it was an act of retaliation over a woman with whom his father was having an affair. His father lived for two or three years as an invalid in a tent in the family’s yard before succumbing to his injuries when Turner was about five years old.

“It’s a challenge to play Ike,” said Turner. “It’s also an honor to play Ike. He was a real person – a Black man born into abject poverty. He pulled himself out of it to reach international fame. He learned to play guitar and started his own band. His band took off and he got famous – and that was a triumph.

“Tina’s story is really a story of triumph. The show depicts Tina’s wonderful liberation from violence and gaining one’s own power. Act II shows the whole full story her triumph. Tina became herself.”

The production at the Academy of Music has a great story – and great music performed by highly talented actors. The sets are colorful and inspiring, and the audience responds energetically to such classic hits as “A Fool in Love,” “Proud Mary,” “Private Dancer,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “We Don’t Need Another Hero” and, of course, “(Simply) The Best.”

According to Tina Turner, “It has been years since I toured the U.S., and I am very excited that my own musical can now bring my music and story to my fans in their home cities across America. It’s a homecoming and that is very special to me.”

Video link for “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical” — https://youtu.be/Q4xlsuaZ6To.

“Tina — The Tina Turner Musical” is running now through December 4 at the Academy of Music.

Ticket prices start at $20.

If you’re not up for a drive into Philadelphia, a good option for an evening of live theater can be found here in Chester County.

Alice in Wonderland: A Musical Panto

People’s Light (39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, peopleslight.org) is presenting “Alice in Wonderland: A Musical Panto,” which is running now through January 1, 2023.

Each year, the People’s Light holiday panto transforms a beloved children’s story into a musical extravaganza filled with outrageous characters, toe-tapping original music, slapstick comedy, and topical humor for both kids and adults.

The beloved holiday tradition returns to People’s Light with the world premiere of “Alice in Wonderland: A Musical Panto.” The show, which is directed by Bill Fennelly, features book by Jennifer Childs and music and lyrics by Alex Bechtel.

On her first day of middle school, Alice Liddle stumbles upon a strange book in the library and ends up in a mysterious, magical place. Audiences are urged to cheer the heroes, boo the bad guys, and help Alice find her way home in this panto-tastic take on Lewis Carroll’s madcap classic.

People’s Light has adapted the theatrical form of British pantomime into its own unique brand of holiday hilarity. Audiences of all ages gather to partake in the songs, dances, topical jokes, and jovial camaraderie of this longstanding tradition.

This year, People’s Light is welcoming two Philadelphia icons to the panto family — comedy legend Jennifer Childs writes the book and award-winning drag performer Eric Jaffe is the audience’s new guide through the magical mayhem – and two veterans — Bill Fennelly, who also directed 2019’s “Little Red Robin Hood,” and composer/lyricist Alex Bechtel, who penned the music and lyrics for 2016’s “Sleeping Beauty” and has appeared as an actor in multiple past pantos.

The People’s Light panto is entertainment for the entire family, and the audience is part of the action.

“It’s a family event,” said Childs, during a phone interview last week. “It has something for all ages. There are opportunities in panto for audience interaction. There are contemporary references. It keeps it very live.”

“I used the Alice story as a jumping off point. It’s set in middle school. Alice is running away from a situation – similar to the ‘Wizard Oz.’ Why does she have to go to Wonderland? There is something specific she has to learn.”

“This is a very inclusive show. The extra sparkle is born out of this. We want a really joyful explosion.”

The show at People’s Light will through January 1. Ticket prices start at $47.

There are more stage shows on the immediate horizon.

Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center (226 North High Street, West Chester, www.uptownwestchester.org) is bringing live theater to its stage with a rarely seen production of “The Butterfingers Angel.”

The official opening night for the comedic show is December 3. The show will run through December 23.

Created by William Gibson (The Miracle Worker), one of America’s major dramatists, this touching, funny and highly imaginative retelling of the Nativity story is presented from a fresh and richly creative point-of-view.

The action follows a free-spirited Mary who had decided that men and marriage were not for her, a suddenly cautious Joseph who contends that he is too old for his intended, and a flustered boy-angel who directs each scene from a prompt book and can only manage to get the most strangled, bleating sounds from his trumpet.

Enhanced by a talking tree, sheep and a donkey, along with traditional Christmas music, this wholly original theatre piece is both secular and sacred – often antic, but the spirit of reverence, joy, and the true significance of the occasion is never lost.

Ticket prices start at $40.

The Playhouse on Rodney Square (1007 North Market Street, Wilmington, Delaware, www.BroadwayInWilmington.org) is presenting “Hairspray” from December 1-4.

The show’s 20th Anniversary is this year, and this is the first time “Hairspray” has toured since 2009. The show’s messages of inclusivity are as timely and relevant as ever, whether it be about self-acceptance and body positivity or the resonance with the experiences of people of color today.

“Hairspray” started out many years ago as a John Waters movie – a typically off-beat Waters piece that eventually became a cult favorite.

Set in 1962 in Baltimore, Maryland (Waters’ hometown), the production follows teenage Tracy Turnblad’s dream to dance on The Corny Collins Show, a local TV dance program based on the real-life Buddy Deane Show.

Ticket prices start at 4$8.

The Candlelight Theatre (2208 Millers Road, Arden, Delaware, www.candlelighttheatredelaware.org) is just beginning performamnces of its annual tradition of presenting a holiday production.

From November 25-December 23, The Candlelight is presenting “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.”

The successful song-and-dance act of army buddies Bob Wallace and Phil Davis follow a duo of singing sisters en route to their Christmas show at a Vermont lodge, which just happens to be owned by Bob and Phil’s former army commander. Filled with laughter, romance, spectacular dance numbers and the unforgettable songs of Irving Berlin, it’s clear to see why this is a holiday favorite for the whole family.

The American Music Theatre (2425 Lincoln Highway East, Lancaster, www.AMTshows.com) is presenting its annual Christmas production “The 2022 Christmas Show: Home for the Holidays” now through December 30.

This live, original musical experience features a new cast delivering the same high-quality, Broadway-caliber performances as in years past – and it all begins the moment you arrive!

Inspired by the warm, cherished memories of family Christmases spent together with loved ones, “Home for the Holidays” opens on the joyous gathering of family and friends who celebrate with a rich tapestry of song, dance, and holiday traditions. Next, we take you to Santa’s Candy Factory where you’ll be transported to a dream world of bright colors and Candy Elves! Finally, you’ll join us at a “midnight” candlelight service for some songs of worship, traditional carols, and the powerful, harmony-filled rendition of “O Holy Night.”

Ticket prices start at $23.

If you’re looking for a good time evening of live music, Jamey’s is always a good place to look.

Jamey’s House of Music (32 South Lansdowne Avenue, Lansdowne, 215-477-9985, www.jameyshouseofmusic.com) has an impressive lineup of shows for Thanksgiving  weekend.

On November 25, Jamey’s will host Gabe Stillman with Ben Brandt and The Soul Miners Union as the opening act

Stillman, an accomplished blues guitarist from Williamsport, seems to have found a home-away-from home in Delaware County. This will be his third concert at Jamey’s in 2022.

“I’ve stayed busy all through the last year-and-a-half,” said Stillman, during a recent phone call from his home in the birthplace of Little League Baseball.

Stillman was busiest during a two-week period in April 2021.

“I went to Austin in April and recorded my first album,” said Stillman. “It was produced by Anton Funderbergh at Wire Recording.”

Funderbergh is top-flight guitarist and the bandleader of Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets since 1978. Their style incorporates both Chicago blues and Texas blues. He is also one of the most respected producers in Texas’ capitol city.

“I met Anton at the International Blues Challenge a couple years ago,” said Stillman. “I’ve been a fan of his since I was a teenager. He’s in my top 10 list of blues players. And I loved his production work with other people.”

Stillman’s album, “Just Say the Word,” was released in August by the Vizztone Label Group.

“It’s a 15-song album – 13 originals and two covers,” said Stillman. “The covers were Bill Withers’ ‘Friend of Mine’ and Bobby Blue Bland’s ‘I’ll Take Care of You.’

“When the album came out in August, it debuted at Number 10 on the Billboard Magazine Blues chart. It was also named one of the top blues albums of 2021 by Roots Music Report.

“I brought my rhythm section Bassist Colin Beatty and drummer Ray Hangen – down to Austin. In the studio, we used Taylor Streiff, a piano player from St. Louis, Austin’s Texas Horns and had Sue Foley and Anton playing guitar on one track.”

It was a big step forward for Stillman, who has been studying guitar for almost a decade-and-a-half.

“I started taking guitar lessons when I was 11,” said Stillman. “I’m 25 now so I’ve been playing for 14 years.

“When I started out, I wanted to play heavy rock and heavy metal. Listening to guitarists in those genres, I realized that their playing was very fast and technically complicated. A teacher told me to learn rock by getting into the blues.

“So, I started listening to a lot of blues guitarists like B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert King, Buddy Guy and Elmore James. I was also listening to guitarist such as Duane Allman and Derek Trucks. I realized – hey, I can do this. I got hooked on blues and R&B – and jazz. When I was 13 or 14, I started to perform live.”

A key stage in Stillman’s development came at the Uptown Music Collective in Williamsport.

For 20 years, the Uptown Music Collective has been providing exceptional modern music education grounded in traditional educational principles. Its programs engage students through an emphasis on modern genres including rock, pop, soul, blues, country, R&B, and funk.

“I studied at the Uptown Music Collective when I was younger,” said Stillman. “I also taught there after I got out of college.”

Stillman spent his college years in Boston where he got a degree in “Professional Music” with an emphasis on guitar performance and songwriting.

“I started my band in 2015 after graduating from Berklee,” said Stillman, whose honors include making it to “Final Eight” of the 35th Annual International Blues Challenge in Memphis Tennessee.

“My band has been primarily a trio but at the Blues Challenge, I made it to the finals with the addition of a harmonica player in the group.

“My bass player Colin Beatty, who is also from Williamsport, has been with me the whole time. We’ve had different drummers come in-and-out. Right now, our drummer is Ray Hangen from Buffalo, New York.

“With the trio, we play mostly blues and American rock. There also is a little mix of R&B in there.”

Video link for Gabe Stillman — https://youtu.be/QGIJgb51Kw8.

The show at Jamey’s on November 25 will start at 8 p.m.

Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 at the door.

On November 26, the venue in Delaware County will present Slim and the Perkolators with secial guest Rockin’ Johnny Burgi.

Led by Harmonica Slim Derek Matteson on the misery whistle and expat Brit Tim the Perkolator Perks on guitar, with a changing cast of rhythm players and frequent high-profile guests, the veteran musicians are living the life and loving the blues. They always bring the party.

The show at Jamey’s on November 26 will start at 8 p.m.

Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 at the door.

Every Sunday, Jamey’s presents “SUNDAY BLUES BRUNCH & JAM” featuring the Philly Blues Kings from noon-1 p.m. and an open jam session from1-3 p.m. There is no cover charge.

Kennett Flash (102 Sycamore Alley, Kennett Square, 484-732-8295, http://www.kennettflash.org) is presenting a Jazz Jam on November 27, Dead Flowers on December 3, and Bryan Tuk Project on December 10.

Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center (226 North High Street, West Chester, www.uptownwestchester.org) is presenting The Cartoon Christmas on December 6, and The Last Big Band Holiday Show on December 20.

Phantom Power (121 West Frederick Street, Millersville, www.phantompower.net) will have Brass Monkeys on November 26, Local H on December 3, Maya de Vitry on December 9, and Aunt Mary Pat on December 29.

Colonial Theater (227 Bridge Street, Phoenixville, thecolonialtheatre.com/events) is hosting Jessica Lynn on December 9.

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