It Takes Two: Zurin Villanueva, Naomi Rodgers bring the power of Tina Turner to Academy of Music stage

Tina Turner
Naomi Rodgers performing ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’ in ‘TINA: The Tina Turner Musical’.
Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

Whether it is the Tina Turner of the ’60s and ‘70s, where she rolled down the river, or the solo Tina Turner who rocked throughout her platinum-plated comeback of the ’80s and ‘90s, the legendary singer was always bursting with passion, energy and soul.

Any actor and singer tackling the title role of playwright Katori Hall’s ‘TINA: The Tina Turner Musical‘ must put forth said energy across nearly three hours of stage time, six days a week. So, it’s going to take at least two actors to portray such comet-blasting force. That is exactly what is happening as Zurin Villanueva and Naomi Rodgers, the two Tina Turners of ‘TINA: The Tina Turner Musical’, take the stage at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia on the Kimmel Cultural Campus. On alternating nights, Villanueva and Rodgers — two long-trained, hardworking Broadway actor-singer-dancers — will dazzle Philly audiences.

“The first thing I noticed when I read Hall’s book was how involved it was in Turner’s real life,” said Villanueva. “So many musicals move quick-quick-quick through its story and onto the next song. Hall’s script was a play as much as it was a musical. And the acting geek that I am, I loved that I would not only get a chance to sing, I’d also be able to use my acting chops as well.”

Rodgers seconded Villanueva’s emotion, and was pleased to see how each of Turner’s signature songs became passion plays of their own, of Tina’s real life.

“In our musical, she could be singing a song not meant for musical theater such as “Better Be Good to Me,” a song about love, and directing it here at Ike,” said Rodgers in relation to Ike Turner, Tina’s one-time husband and bandleader. “It is one of those books that read like, ‘Dag,’ we’re getting the nitty-gritty of a woman’s life. We get to see Tina, and all her powers at her prime.”

Garrett Turner as ‘Ike Turner’ in ‘TINA: The Tina Turner Musical’.Matthew Murphy / Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Recalling everything from “Tina’s iconic wig” to her “raspy voice full of angst and sensuality,” Rodgers stated how grateful she is to be portraying Turner on a nightly basis. “Actually, every couple of nights,” she laughs at the thought of splitting the role of Tina with Villanueva, 50/50.

“The ‘Tina’ character is on stage 2 hours and 40 minutes out of the entire 2 hour and 45-minute show doing 21 songs,” said Villanueva. “To do it to its utmost ability, we split the role. This is to ensure our longevity, that we do not get laryngitis or get sick. Knock on wood. You can not short change Tina Turner.”

Rodgers concurred with Villanueva, and noted how taxing repeated Tinas can be without its necessary downtime.  “To be able to be in power, and give Tina justice 100%, it is smart of the production to give us our breaks, to recharge throughout the schedule. The rest is needed for the heart and the mind.”

Each actor has her own Tina nuances and tics, with each Tina solely reflecting each actors’ personality and inner life. “Our Tinas are totally different because we’re two different people,” said Rodgers. “I know Zurin, and I know when she’s putting “Tina” in it,” she laughed. “You want you and Tina to be friends. Zurin and Tina become best friends so that she can be in her truth while doing justice to Tina’s story, the story being told.”

On that score, Villanueva is totally enthralled by Rodgers’ singing voice. “We are both so different, and what I enjoy about Naomi’s Tina is her varied vocal choices and her dexterity. It is so beautiful, and something only Naomi can do.”

Zurin Villanueva as ‘Tina Turner’ in ‘TINA: The Tina Turner Musical’.Matthew Murphy / Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Add to that the improvisation that each actor is encouraged to bring to each performance, and you get a somewhat different Tina every time both Villanueva and Rogers set foot onstage.

As for most impactful TINA musical moments, while Villanueva chooses “River Deep, Mountain High” — “the song has no cap, you can just let everything go, let all of your love out” — Rodgers uses the rougher edged “Nutbush City Limits.”

“Being able to bounce around the stage and embody Tina at her sweatiest, her most joyous – to keep rocking out – that’s the song that does it for me,” said Rodgers. “But each song in the musical portrays Tina Turner at her mightiest.”

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