Zurin Villanueva shakes things up as Tina Turner

(NEWS4USONLINE) – A big part of an actor’s life is diving into the character he or she is asked to portray. It doesn’t matter if it’s for a role on the big screen or on television. The process to the end result is the same. That means that actor has to relinquish themselves completely and freely in order to transform into a whole new persona altogether.

That is perhaps the biggest challenge Zurin Villanueva would say she has encountered in portraying music legend and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer singer Tina Turner. Villanueva shares co-billing with Naomi Rodgers in the North America Tour of the Broadway hit “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.”

Zurin Villanueva as ‘Tina Turner’ and Ann Nesby as 'Gran Georgeanna' in the North American touring production of TINA – THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade, 2022
Zurin Villanueva as ‘Tina Turner’ and Ann Nesby as ‘Gran Georgeanna’ in the North American touring production of TINA – THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade, 2022

During a Zoom interview, Villanueva is far from the high-energized performer who wows the audience with every shimmy she shakes and who gives the crowd their money’s worth each time throws her head back and belts out a tune the way Turner used to do. Sitting somewhere in a quiet room and without all the glitter that surrounds “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” Villanueva is both warm and incredibly accommodating with her time.

 Villanueva is stunningly beautiful. Her megawatt smile can not only light up a stage, but it also brings an undeniable presence to any room. When it came down to discussing the impact of Turner and the late singer’s legacy,  Villanueva’s brown eyes lit up like a Christmas tree.       

“It’s a pathway to all things that are possible. It’s a joy, an honor and it’s larger than myself, ” said Villanueva. “That’s very much the reason why, you know, I became an actor…to be a part of something larger than myself to help those with the issues I don’t even know about. You know,  just by the audience seeing whatever they saw that day. Whether it’s through laughter or crying or all the above. It means so much.”.  

On opening night for “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts on July 11, 2023, Villanueva got the leadoff nod and hit the ball right out of the ballpark with an electric performance that called for a long-standing ovation at the conclusion of the show. The real-life Turner, who passed away in May, was known to bring plenty of sizzle to her live performances.

Zurin Villanueva as ‘Tina Turner’ and Max Falls as 'Erwin Bach' in the North American touring production of TINA – THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade, 2022
Zurin Villanueva as ‘Tina Turner’ and Max Falls as ‘Erwin Bach’ in the North American touring production of TINA – THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade, 2022

The scope of Turner’s hot dance routines became a staple for the “What’s Love Got to Do With It” singer. When she performed, the leggy Brownsville, Tennessee native brought heat to the stage. It can be quite an exhilarating experience just watching Turner tear the stage up with her frenetic pace of dance moves.

Playing Turner requires an individual to be on the level of a fitness marvel. By the way, you also have to know how to knock out a song the way that Anna Mae Bullock (Turner) could do as well.

During her anthem-like performance on opening night, Villanueva showed the audience that not only has she mastered the “Private Dancer’s singing and dance circulation, but she has every nuanced detail of Turner covered.

At times, the Howard University alum emulated Turner so close to the vest that it actually felt like it was the real deal on stage performing. Villanueva owns the stage and has the presence of a superstar. It is Villanueva’s command of playing Turner that makes “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” a masterful spectacle.

 “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” is very high on energy. To say that Villanueva carried the show would be an understatement. She is the show. Playing any character is hard enough as it is. Portraying an icon like Turner is an even stiffer challenge. To meet those demands, Villanueva said she simply had to let herself go.  

“In portraying her the biggest challenge is I think for me…relinquishing control,” Villanueva said. “You know, as an actor, especially as theater actors, we are athletes. We very much are. And what that entails is they’re disciplined and very regimented in wanting to get these shows at one thousand percent every day.

“However, this is arts and doing the work and then letting go of it and letting different things happen, different things happen really with my instrument, honestly. It’s like, you know, there’s always different things happening on stage and we love those. Every time something new happens or different…even like something that’s seen as a mistake ends up really being quite fun.”    

Villanueva, whose stage credits include starring in Broadway productions such as “The Lion King,” “The Book of Mormon,” and “Mean Girls,” goes on to elaborate about being in the moment as an actor performing in front of a live audience.  

“You know like when you’re out there singing and sometimes the spirit gets you and you have this feeling to do something a little bit different, getting out of your own way and letting that happen is definitely a challenge for me being so disciplined as I am,” said Villanueva.

Sandwiched before and after graduating from Howard with a BFA (bachelor of fine arts) diploma, Villanueva’s early thespian journey included stints with the Brooklyn Music School, Dance Theatre of Harlem, and the British American Dramatic Academy (BADA)  in Oxford, England, a place where the late Chadwick Boseman (another famous Howard graduate) attended.

Zurin Villanueva performing as ‘Tina Turner’ and Garrett Turner as ‘Ike Turner’ in the North American touring production of TINA – THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade,

And outside of her work in theatre, Villanueva has expanded her resume to include film and television work. She did work on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and plays the role of Imani in the Netflix film “Murder Mystery 2.” But right now Villanueva is in the moment trying to execute playing Turner the best way she can. In portraying Turner, it’s been a learning curb, Villanueva said.

“It has been literally a bottomless pit of knowledge,” Villanueva said. “I’ve really tapped into my sensitivity. I am extremely sensitive. Being a Black woman in this world, you know, there’s not much room for that or space or time or anything. But I found myself having no choice but to honor it and feel it in all of its glory in order to play the queen of rock and roll. She very much brought me back to myself as I was born to be.”

In the process of letting herself go in order to step into the shoes of Turner, Villanueva discovered some things about herself.

”It’s my vessel,” quipped Villanueva. “It’s my vessel, it’s my body, it’s my instrument. So I’m here. Zurin is present. I don’t know how to do anything else. That’s the beautiful part about this role and all the other wonderful ladies who have played her.

“She said that all the time. She was like, ‘I don’t want you to do a copy of me. I want you to find your Tina.’“That’s where I got into the sensitivity thing where it was just like because in order to find my Tina I had to be fully myself. And she was knowledge of self. It was so important to her. Now in my young womanhood, I truly understand why. Knowledge of self is what you need to survive anything.”            

Lead Photo Caption: Zurin Villanueva as ‘Tina Turner’ and Garrett Turner as ‘Ike Turner’ and the cast of the North American touring production of TINA – THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMad

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