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Paulanne Simmons

Talking and Singing About Tina

"River Deep, A Tribute to Tina Turner"
Directed & Choreographed by Gabrielle Lansner
The Peter Jay Sharp Theater
616 West 42nd St., between 9th and 10th avenues
Opened July 5, 2006
Tues. thru Sat. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 p.m.
$35 (212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com
Closes July 29, 2006
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons July 6, 2006
Pat Hall as Tina Turner and the cast in "River Deep." Photo by Stephanie Berger.


Tina Turner's life has been filled with music and dance, and Gabrielle Lansner's tribute to the R&B icon, "River Deep," is gloriously filled with both. This also makes perfect sense because Lansner is primarily a choreographer and her company is composed of talented dancers.

The company dances and sings to a terrific original score by Philip Hamilton, performed by a 5-piece band that will make many want to stand up and dance themselves. Except for some dancing that is too abstract and doesn't really represent who Turner was or what she did, the musical portions of the play work very well. The same cannot be said of the spoken word, which Lansner adapted from the autobiography Turner wrote with Kurt Loder.

The story of Turner's life is told through monologues spoken by Turner (Pat Hall), the Narrator (Erica Bowen) and other people in Turner's life. Every one of the monologues sounds stiff and unnatural.

The monologues are filled with clichés and too-easy moralizing. The actors, who are primarily dancers, struggle mightily with sentences that no one would ever say in real lie and never should say onstage. But even if they were more skilled thespians, they would most probably fail.

The other big problem with "Deep River" is Ike, or rather the absence of Ike.

Ask anyone who was the biggest influence on Tina Turner's career and the answer will undoubtedly be Ike Turner. Yet Turner's ex-husband is strangely missing from the story. This is not to say that no mention is made of Ike Turner. His presence hovers over the production – his Svengali-like hold over the Ikettes, his abuse of Tina and their eventual split – but like the elephant that is not in the room, he never actually appears.

Without Ike physically onstage, it's hard to understand the kind of emotional control he exerted over Tina and the other women in his life (and there were many). And without this necessary depth, Tina's travails become a sob-story.

At one point in the play, Turner is quoted as saying, "I never tried to be anything but what I was." This is good advice Lansner should have considered more closely. Perhaps then she would not have burdened her dancers with the kind of abstract movement that was foreign to Turner. And she would certainly not have tried to turn them into actors reciting impossible lines.

An individual can be brought to life through a thoughtful combination of words and music. But "River Deep" doesn't go down far enough and at the same time, is too hard for the actors to cross. Nevertheless they make a mighty fine celebration while rowing their boat.

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