Simply the best: Tapping into Tina Turner’s life is no easy act

In her first leading role in a major musical, Ruva Ngwenya inhabits the life of Tina Turner, channelling the emotional highs and lows that defined the iconic singer’s life and belting out the big hits that shaped her success.

Apr 09, 2024, updated Apr 09, 2024
Ruva Ngwenya as Tina Turner with the Ikettes in 'Tina – The Tina Turner Musical'. Photo: Daniel Boud / supplied

Ruva Ngwenya as Tina Turner with the Ikettes in 'Tina – The Tina Turner Musical'. Photo: Daniel Boud / supplied

The first time Ruva Ngwenya ever performed in a musical was at the age of 15 in a high-school production of The Leader of the Pack.

The budding young performer played the role of Tina Turner and sang “River Deep, Mountain High”, wearing a costume that included her mum’s leather skirt. Now, 16 years later, Ngwenya is the star of the Australian production of award-winning show Tina – The Tina Turner Musical, which is currently playing in Perth before touring to Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne.

“It’s so weird that I’m performing Tina Turner professionally after having done that all those years ago,” says the performer, who grew up in Melbourne.

“I loved it, and it was an introduction to me performing on stage. I will never forget the feeling I had singing ‘River Deep, Mountain High’. When I sing it now, it reminds me of that feeling I had when I was 15, performing for the first time. So that has a special place in my heart.”

Playing Tina Turner is a turning point in Ruva Ngwenya’s performance career. Photo: Daniel Boud

Ngwenya went on to study at the Victorian College of the Arts and her on-stage credits include The Lion King, followed by a string of successful musicals such as We Will Rock You, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Ragtime and Moulin Rouge! The Musical. But her current role as the charismatic Tina Turner marks a major turning point in the 31-year-old’s professional career.

“I’ve done theatre for 10 years in supporting roles and ensembles and I’ve done a lot of learning,” she says. “But it feels like this is a moment to step up into a leadership position and into something bigger than myself.

“I really challenged myself with this role, which is outside of the scope of anything I thought I could do. It definitely feels like my time.”

Produced in Australia by Paul Dainty of TEG Dainty (in collaboration with Netherlands-based Stage Entertainment and international producer Tali Pelman), the musical tells the story of Turner’s tumultuous life, from her humble beginnings in Nutbush, Tennessee, through the years of well-documented torment and abuse at the hands her ex-husband Ike Turner. The role of Ike has been played by Tim Omaji at the start of the tour, but will be taken over by newcomer Giovanni Adams when the Adelaide season opens.

Ngwenya acknowledges that Tina is a demanding and challenging role. She has to tap into the depths of the singer’s private and public struggles, barely leaving the stage for the entire musical.

“We see this person from childhood face struggle after struggle and there are a lot of themes in the show such as child abandonment, racism, poverty, sexism, domestic violence, and we see this person develop tools along the way that pushed her forward until she reached the top of the summit, which is the end of the show.”

Ngwenya says that when a performer steps off stage they can use mental-health strategies to help keep some distance between themselves and the character they are playing on stage.

“But to imagine that that was Tina’s real life is just unfathomable.

“This is definitely the hardest thing I’ve had to do but the best at the same time – I’m loving it.

“The way the show is set up, there are a lot of quick changes… some of the costume changes are happening on stage in the middle of a scene. I think there are three quick changes that happen on stage in front of the audience and you don’t stop playing Tina through all of that, so there’s a lot going on.

“It’s a different experience doing a show like this compared to other shows where you might be on stage for a bit and then you get to goof around backstage in the wings before you come back on.

“This show you are on, on, on, completely concentrating, pushing through for two and a half hours.”

‘There’s a lot going on’ – a scene from Tina – The Tina Turner Musical. Photo: Daniel Boud

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The hit production includes more than 20 of Turner’s big hits, including “Simply the Best”, “What’s Love Got to Do With It”, “Nutbush City Limits” and “Proud Mary”.

Mirroring the star’s real life, Tina ends on a high, detailing her incredible comeback and transformation into one of the world’s best-selling artists of all time. During her remarkable career, Turner won 12 Grammy awards and was one of only three women inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame twice – initially in 1991 alongside Ike Turner, then as a solo artist in 2021.

At the end of the day, this story is an arc and a journey

Ngwenya says she hopes people will be inspired by the musical as it pays homage to the way Turner survived, thrived and lived life on her terms.

“I believe that the fundamental message behind a lot of the story is that human experience involves struggle and challenge and that’s inevitable…” she says.

“But the defining factor is in how we handle it and how we manage it, and the show also incorporates spirituality. When Tina finds Buddhism, it becomes a vehicle for her to manifest the strength that was already inside of her; she just needed a way to get it out and use it to her benefit.

“So we all have tools inside of us, it’s just about how we access them. I hope this show inspires people in that way, because we all face challenges, but it’s about how we push past it and how do we get to the top of the mountain.

“I want people to have a great time and rock out and dance, but there is a fundamental theme in there that I think resonates with every human being’s core if you’re willing to take it on board.”

Ruva Ngwenya rocks out as the iconic Tina Turner. Photo: Daniel Boud

The musical, which had its world premiere in London’s West End in 2018, has secured more than 35 award nominations, including Best Musical (Tony Awards) and Best New Musical (Olivier Awards). The Australian production has already played to packed houses in Sydney and Perth as part of its national tour.

“At the end of the day, this story is an arc and a journey… so having that in your mind is helpful and there’s a lot of relief in the way the story ends,” Ngwenya says.

“We all know how Tina’s story ends. It’s simply the best.”

Tina – The Tina Turner Musical plays at the Festival Theatre in Adelaide from April 24, the Lyric Theatre in Brisbane from June 29 and the Princess Theatre in Melbourne from September 21.

This article is republished from InReview under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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