Pat Hall (right) and cast
in River Deep, A Tribute to Tina Turner
(Photo ©  Stephanie Berger)
Pat Hall (right) and cast
in River Deep, A Tribute to Tina Turner
(Photo © Stephanie Berger)
The first thing to do in discussing River Deep, A Tribute to Tina Turner is to clarify what it isn't. While it may sound like the latest in the long line of jukebox musicals, this unusual 70-minute piece created by choreographer Gabrielle Lansner is quite far from such a specimen. Indeed, instead of hearing such classic Turner hits as "River Deep, Mountain High," "Proud Mary," or "What's Love Got to Do With it?", the show is set to an original score by Philip Hamilton. (The one exception is a Turner's 1990s hit "In Your Wildest Dreams.")

The second thing to note is that whatever River Deep is, the result is neither a cohesive blend of art forms nor an emotionally affecting tribute to the pop legend. Indeed, pinpointing Lansner's artistic intentions is a bit tricky, since the show isn't a traditional musical nor is it a exclusively a dance piece. Instead, the song-and-dance segements are interrupted at regular intervals by spoken excerpts from I, Tina, the no-scars-barred 1986 memoir written by Turner and Kurt Loder. But the libretto that Lansner has extracted from Turner's book provides only sketchy information on Turner's culture-deprived youth, her introduction to husband Ike's sinister charisma, the not-so-glory years with his band, and Turner's eventually working up the courage to go it solo.

Still, the largest deficiency to be found on the stage of Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theater is Lansner's choreography. The basic motif she uses is the movement Turner and the Ikettes popularized: that quick-step hustle backward while bending over that any Turner fan will instantly recognize. (I've always been struck by its resemblance to someone caught in the rain hurriedly retreating from a curb when a cab drives through a large puddle). Unfortunately, Lansner adds very little other movement for her competent troupe of dancer-actor-singers -- Pat Hall (as Tina), Zainab Jah, Heather Lind, Paula McGonagle, Erica Bowen., McKenzie Frye, and Shekitra Starke -- to execute.

Occasionally, Lansner tries for something larger with even less felicitious results. In the "Tina's Chant" sequence, where Turner is agonizing over Ike's abusive behavior, Lansner resorts to diva snapthology and cliche reaching. Worse, in the absence of an Ike figure, the chest-slamming Hall does implies that she's abusing herself. Yet, it's unlikely that what Lansner meant to say is that victims are responsible for how they're treated.

Aside from the fast-paced, rhythm-and-blues "Treat You Like a Lady," which actually sounds as if Turner might have recorded it, Hamilton's music is hackneyed. Moreover, in a work purporting to illuminate the life and mind and painful predicament of a talented woman in the thrall of a talented, violent, drug-dependent man, the lyrics -- at least the ones you can actually make out -- overwhelmingly stress the generic.

For example, in "Southern Nights," the repeated refrain "Sunday best/Special request/So long ago" is clearly meant to conjure the Tennessee childhood that Turner alternately enjoyed and despaired of. Perhaps these phrases are evocative of that time, but they're definitely not specific. More is needed on every front for us to fully understand and appreciate Turner, but more isn't forthcoming. At best, RIver Deep is a shallow pleasure.