By Darlene Donloe
Naomi Rodgers and Zurin Villanueva couldn’t believe it when they got the news.
They screamed and threw up their hands when they heard they would alternate playing the legendary rocker Tina Turner in the touring Broadway production of “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” currently playing at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through July 9.
When the news broke that Tina Turner died on May 23 at her home in Switzerland at the age of 83, both actresses were devastated.
“I didn’t get a text message or a call,” said Rodgers, whose credits include the musical, “Frozen.” “I was getting my hair done and looked at my Instagram feed. When I saw it, I felt my heart break. I’ve never felt like I did that day. We had a layoff at the time, so I was able to grieve in my own way.”
“I was at the spa,” said Villanueva, whose Broadway credits include “The Lion King,” “Mean Girls,” “Shuffle Along” and “The Book of Mormon.” “My phone was off. When I turned it on, I got all these texts. I was like, ‘OMG, who passed?’ I saw it was her. I was shocked and stunned.
“It was a heavy, rolling grief. After I cried, it was like, ‘Wow, the baton passes on. It’s ours to pick up and honor her. I will hold it with care.’”
Neither actress knew much about Turner prior to taking on the role.
“I was not as familiar as I wanted to be after I learned who she was,” said Rodgers, an American Musical and Dramatic Academy (New York) graduate. “Her voice was iconic. It’s other-worldly. It’s going to be missed. That’s the sound of rock n roll and pain, and struggle and grit.
“Her voice fits into the pocket of who she is. She represents a Black woman whose story has become a testimony for the world to see. We needed her story.”
“I didn’t know her as well as I do now,” said Villanueva, a Brooklyn native. “My mom knew a lot about Tina Turner. We heard her songs in the car. Her voice. I was curious about it. I wondered how she did it.”
To their disappointment, neither Rodgers nor Villanueva ever met the iconic, resilient Queen of Rock and Roll in person. It’s something they both regret. They find comfort in being able to inhabit the spirit of the famous rocker on stage each night.
“Dang it, I didn’t get to meet her,” Rodgers said. “I told myself I had to step up as a woman because she had given us so much.”
At the time of her death, Turner, born Anna Mae Bullock in Nutbush, Tennessee, was married to her second husband, German music executive Erwin Bach. Turner and Bach are listed as executive producers of the show.
The national tour of “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” written by Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins, and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, landed in Los Angeles a month after Turner died.
The show takes a look at her childhood neglect and trauma, music, films, concerts and disturbing married life with her abusive husband and music partner, Ike Turner, which came to an end in 1976, along with the act, Ike and Tina Turner Revue, all of which inspired an Oscar-nominated biopic, HBO’s “Tina,” at least four books, as well as the current Broadway musical.
The production is recommended for ages 14 and older. It includes scenes depicting domestic violence, racist language, loud music, strobe lighting, haze and gunshots.
Portraying Tina Turner has been a dream come true for Rodgers and Villanueva, who each perform half the week’s shows.
“I’m playing a rock ‘n’ roll star,” Villanueva said. “This is the biggest role I’ve ever done. It’s my first principal on a huge production. We literally get to borrow her fans each night.”
“The audience is a key factor,” Rodgers added. “They help build this story. We are putting on a concert with iconic songs.”
Rodgers and Villanueva, who joined the show last July, said playing the role of the pop music icon after her death has a profound meaning.
“To me, her death meant I had an opportunity to be more Tina-like and tell the story with authenticity and truth,” Rodgers said. “It pushed me to be honest and particular about who Tina is.”
“I was so thankful and overwhelmed and grateful to Tina,” Villanueva said. “Because of her, I feel I have become the woman I was supposed to become.”
The two hour and 45 minute, high-energy show includes 21 musical numbers. The performance is so physical, it takes two actresses to bring Turner’s life to the stage.
“Doing this show is the most exhilarating and blessed thing I’ve ever had the honor of doing,” Rodgers said. “I tell people I had to marry myself and Tina. I allowed myself to bring more of myself into it. I have a ‘Whoo’ moment. I have a ‘Wow,’ what did I just do moment.
“I feel great every time. When you do this show, your body goes into an, ‘Are we going to do this again?’ state. Your body wants to keep going. This is what Tina did.”
“Oh, my goodness,” Villanueva said. “It really is a charge. I’m just vibrating so wonderfully. It takes some time to come down. I don’t feel it until the next morning. We’re not taught how to come down from a show. Emotionally, how do you separate it? I sit quietly. I have space and feel what I need to feel. It’s a tricky thing.”
“After the show, I’m a ball of energy,” Rodgers said. “My coming down is me just being me. I tap back into Naomi. I get so caught up in the story. I want to feel the air and smell the hot dogs outside the theater, go home, go to sleep, and start it all over again.”
Tina Turner, whose life was fodder for the tabloids, is known for having one of the most dynamic comebacks in music history. After nearly a decade away from the limelight, Turner returned at age 44 as one of the world’s greatest rock stars.
One of the world’s best-selling artists of all time, Turner won 12 Grammy Awards and her live shows have been seen by millions, with more concert tickets sold than any other solo performer in music history.
“When you think of Tina Turner, you think about her resilience and survival and femininity,” Villanueva said. “She has changed Black women’s lives. She taught us to stand up for what we know. She did it all with grace. She was a lady. That’s what she taught us. Her story is a reminder that anything is possible.”
“Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” is staged at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd.; at 8 p.m.Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays through July 9; Tickets are $49-$179 (subject to change). Information: (323) 468-1700 or broadwayinhollywood.com.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.