Houston-born actress comes home to star in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical
Excited doesn't quite capture the emotion Houston native GiGi Lewis feels about coming through her hometown in the national tour of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,opening January 2 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.
"I'm trying to keep it down because I'm over here losing it," she laughs. "I'm like a kid in a candy store!"
The musical tells the story of Tina Turner, the iconic superstar known for her big voice, big presence, and big drama in her relationship with husband Ike Turner. Across her more than 50-year career, she sold more than 100 million records worldwide, shattered records and barriers, won 12 Grammy Awards, was the first Black woman to be featured on the cover of Rolling Stone, and acted in Mad Max Beyond Thunder Dome, among many other accomplishments.
Tina features a slew of her hits across the decades, and was nominated for 12 Tony Awards, garnering one for Adrienne Warren for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. Jesse Green of the New York Times wrote of the show, "I’ve rarely heard an audience with this mighty a roar.” The Daily Beast said of the musical, "Be prepared to be ecstatically blown away. It’s a miracle the roof hasn’t taken flight to space.”
From H-Town to the Big Apple
Lewis' road to the national tour isn't the typical story of a kid who gets bit by the theater bug, studies it in college, then hoofs off to the Big Apple, looking to land on Broadway. Neither Aldine High School, from which she graduated, nor Prairie View A&M University, where she spent three years, had musical theater programs.
"But I had incredible music teachers and drama teachers," she tells CultureMap. "And we put on small choir productions for other students. That began to create a path to where I am today."
She also credits her parents for helping to teach her the craft of singing, especially her dad. From the age of about 5 or 6, she says, her father, a singer himself and a preacher, would sit down and sing to her all the time. She began mimicking him, and he would offer her tips.
"I'd sing in the choir at church, then come home and sing with my dad," she recalls. "I learned everything, music-wise, from my dad."
After high school, while she was a student at Prairie View A&M, she began singing in gigs around Houston, going back and forth between Prairie View and H-Town, with occasional trips to Dallas and other cities, even being part of the cast of Motown and More for a couple of years at Miller Outdoor Theatre. The experience, she says in hindsight, helped open her to the idea that being a professional singer was really what she wanted, along with helping her get used to the idea of being in the public eye.
She's on a boat!
It would take a cruise to really change her life. She and her cousin and an aunt took a Carnival trip sailing out of Galveston, and there was a talent show on the ship. Her cousin signed her up.
"Girl, what are you doing?" she says she told her. "That's crazy."
But she got up there and sang anyway, performing "I Will Always Love You." Her cousin recorded it and posted it to her social media — and Royal Caribbean came calling, asking her to audition.
"I'm just thinking, what in the world? I'm in my late 20s. I did a GoFundMe that paid for my travel to Miami."
She landed the gig, and set sail with Royal Caribbean in 2016. She'd work for the company for seven years, taking on roles such as Pearl in Hairspray, and performing in Dare to Dream, a musical about the Wright Brothers, along with Las Vegas-style shows. It was an opportunity for her to explore the world and hone her craft. While performing in Hairspray at sea, she learned about auditions for Tina. There was one problem: she was in Spain and the auditions were in New York. Across a frantic 24 hours, she flew back to the States and nailed the audition.
Tina's true BFF
Lewis hit the road with Tina in October, taking on the roles of Aline, Tina's sister and confidant; an Ikette; and being part of the ensemble. She also understudies the role of Tina.
"Tina," she exclaims. "Tina. Tina. Tina. What an incredible honor this is. I was a fan before I got here. I still pinch myself."
Juggling the roles she has might seem daunting, but Lewis loves the challenge. She describes Aline as one of Turner's "best friends. She had such a huge role in her life. She was the manager of the Ikettes. She wrote songs for Ike and Tina. In the show, she serves as someone Tina can confide in. She'd loud. She's bold. She's funny."
Those are traits Lewis says she recognizes in herself.
A true Houston star
Right now, she's having a blast touring the country. On a stop in St. Louis, the cast of the show got to visit the school Tina Turner attended. When she isn't performing, she seeks out significant places in Black history in each city the tour rolls through. And she's learned a great deal about life on the road.
"It's a big difference from life on the ships!" she says, clearly making fun of herself. "I'm carrying my own suitcases now. Every Monday, I'm in line at the airport."
But she wouldn't have it any other way. And she's elated for her hometown friends and family to see what she does.
"They've seen me sing, and they've seen me dance and act, but never all three at once," she explains. "I just feel so supported from the people who've reached out and said they're coming. My teachers. My principal. My dream was always to be on that big stage, so having people me doing what I always said I'd do — that makes me teary-eyed."
Tina: The Tina Turner Musical runs January 2-8 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Find tickets, showtimes, and more details here.