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A CurtainUp Review
River Deep, A Tribute to Tina Turner

By Brad Bradley


Cast members of River Deep
(Photo: Stephanie Berger)
River Deep, A Tribute to Tina Turner, apart from its appropriate subtitle, is a very hard-to-describe multi-media hybrid. With a full (original) musical score, at times it seems to be a show-biz biography inspired by a lineage of earlier shows from Gypsy to Jersey Boys. Yet, with its reliance on monologues in lieu of any dialogue or even dramatic conflict, the drama of the piece never gets beyond a series of fragmented readings, although a couple of them as delivered by unidentified supporting players are rendered quite effectively. Even more of the nearly seventy-minute collage is devoted to expressive dances derived from a number of influences that includ 1970s disco, the jubilant side of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, and the more iconoclastic dance troupe called Urban Bush Women. There even are moments that seem to be as much an homage to Martha Graham as to the still very vital rock queen Tina Turner.

In the mostly confessional monologues, we hear of Tina’s beginnings in the Tennessee cotton fields, her early fascination with music, of course her tumultuous and career-making relationship with Ike Turner, her fall into poverty and obscurity, her interest and reliance in Buddhism, and her magnificent rebirth into a mainstream solo career after considerable personal struggle. The best moments in the show are the simple ones, including one or two of the original songs. "Southern Nights" in particular stands out. A compelling dance solo by Pat Hall in the central role with a soulful non-verbal chorus in support also brings vibrant excitement.

Unfortunately, while Ms. Hall is a remarkably fine, even dramatic, dancer and an adequate singer, she is not an effective actress here, and her monologues have a portentous quality in their delivery. Equally unfortunate in the writing are respectively self-conscious and lugubrious attempts at poetry and civil rights history.

The physical production, while simple in design, is ambitious, and often decidedly too busy for the intimate personal material. The excess is particularly wasted when the very busy sensuously gyrating dancers are upstaged by their own oversized photographic images projected on the back wall. The projections themselves are superb, but serve only to muddy and confuse the performance.

No sound designer is credited (unusual for a musical production today); in fact, there is no musical direction credit either. Should such services be recruited, there certainly is work to be done, especially in balancing music levels. In the opening segment, the lyrics of the on-stage vocalist, even while she was virtually eating the microphone, were totally incomprehensible.

River Deep
Conceived and directed by Gabrielle Lansner
Original score by Philip Hamilton
Projections by Stephanie Berger
Book adapted from I, Tina by Tina Turner with Kurt Loder
Choreography by Gabrielle Lansner & company
Cast: Pat Hall (Tina) with Erica Bowen Zainab Jah, Heather Hind, and Paula McGonagle, McKenzie Frye, and Shekitra Starke
On stage band: Alex Alexander (percussion), Daniel Mintseris (keyboards), Trevor Exter (electric cello), Chieli Minucci (guitar) and Spiros Exias (guitar). No musical director noted.
Set Design: Dean Taucher
Costume Design: Liz Prince
Lighting Design: Jim French
Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes (no intermission).
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street.
Schedule: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, Saturday at 2 PM.
Returned to this theater after a 1/20/06 to 2/04/06 run. Now from 7/05/06 to 7/29/06
Viewed by Brad Bradley at the July 6 performance.
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