New West End Tina Star Nkeki Obi-Melekwe on Meeting Ms. Turner & What Adrienne Warren Gave Her

New West End Tina Star Nkeki Obi-Melekwe on Meeting Ms. Turner & What Adrienne Warren Gave Her
Nkeki Obi-Melekwe in "Tina: The Tina Turner Musical"
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Nkeki Obi-Melekwe at only 22 has stepped into the starring role of anyone’s dreams, succeeding 2019 Olivier nominee Adrienne Warren in the title role of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical at the Aldwych Theatre. The chatty and engaging Bronx-born University of Michigan graduate spoke to one recent afternoon about channeling her inner rock star and getting to meet a living legend.

How has it been so far following on from Adrienne Warren, who recently completed a year’s run in the show?
There had been some useful conversation before I got to London about nutritionist training, for instance, so that I could get my eating habits set up. And once I got here [Adrienne] was very helpful in dropping truth bombs where I would go, “Oh, that’s what she was talking about!”

Do you mean as far as pacing yourself across the week? [Obi-Melekwe performs Tuesday-Saturday evenings.]
When I got to my dressing room, I found that [Adrienne] had left me a “Tina kit” that included bath salts so that I could take a bath three or four times a week. I’m such a busybody and so wired after a performance that it's nice to allow myself time to slow down and relax.

Nkeki Obi-Melekwe in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Did you catch Adrienne multiple times so as to be able to chart her arc through the show?
I watched her twice, I believe, and then saw a couple of the other [alternate] Tinas so as to get as many interpretations as possible. I also knew that if I watched one interpretation too often, it would be difficult to remain authentic to my own instincts.

How did you set about capturing Tina Turner’s singular vocal style?
That has a lot to do with keeping your own voice separate from the Tina voice. I’ve had to learn what it means to get in and out of the Tina style, which is a physical stretch and a mental stretch, as well.

When you were growing up in the U.S., did people ever comment on you possessing a “Tina Turner vibe” or anything of that sort?
I wish people had said that to me! I had a lot of wonderful mentors who pushed me into acting and all along I wanted to be the most versatile actor I could, which meant being able to sing and dance, as well. But this came to me on an absolute whirlwind. I’d always loved pop music but never thought of myself as a rock star. It turns out I must have had that in there somewhere.

Have you been feeling as if you can now channel your inner rock chick?
It’s just that I’d never allowed myself to get in touch with that part of myself before. It’s been wonderful getting to know that part of me.

What was it like when you traveled to Switzerland to meet Tina in person?
It was unbelievable, just unbelievable. Something this story has that many jukebox musicals do not is a real-life reference. There’s no substitute for having the person herself right there.

Did Ms. Turner give you any notes?
Inadvertently, perhaps, about learning to trust yourself, but it was more about wanting to be in [Turner’s] presence and to breathe her air. I learned more through that than I could by asking questions. Her life has been so much about trusting that you will know what to do, which is such a great metaphor for what we do as actors.

How do you come down after such a high-intensity performance?
First of all, I eat a lot! I’ve got an oil candle that I burn, and I try to get off my phone and steam and listen to music. It’s about building in necessary self-care time.

What has surprised you most about doing the show so far?
Hmm, that’s a good question. I don’t think I realized just how diehard Tina’s fans are. It’s such a privilege to have the audience be so involved and to get up on their feet and sing along and dance; I don’t think I anticipated how inspirational her story is.

Does it feel like kismet that you were recently in an off Broadway musical, Alice by Heart, set in London and here you are in the city itself?
Quite a lot of what I have done so far has been set in London, so it’s as if the universe knew this was going to happen before I did. And I’ve got to say I really love London. I’d been here a few times before on family trips and then did a semester course at LAMDA [the renowned drama school] where we focused on classical acting and I did a lot of Shakespeare.

Might we see you segueing from musicals to the Bard, a bit like Danielle Brooks who is now playing Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing in Central Park?
I love it all and would love to do all of it—preferably at the same time [laughs].

What’s the story behind the lovely picture on Instagram of you together with 2019 Olivier nominee Rachel Tucker, from Come From Away?
We were both part of the Magic at the Musicals evening earlier this month at the Royal Albert Hall, so I got to meet Rachel who turns out to be a huge Tina Turner fan. I tried to let Rachel know that I love her so much and also got to sing “We Don’t Need Another Hero.” To sing that song in such a massive setting was an unbelievable honor.

Does the name Nkeki have an English-language meaning? It’s so beautiful.
Thank you! Yes, it’s Nigerian and means “one who owns the future.”

Doesn’t that sound exactly like a sentiment worthy of Tina Turner?
You know, I’m starting to claim it more and more every day!