Tuesday, February 19, 2019

REVIEW: ENTHRALLING GEORGE STREET PLAYHOUSE PRODUCTION BRINGS ICONIC JAZZ/SOUL PERFORMER TO LIFE

By Ruth Ross

The musical biography has become a popular 21st century dramatic genre: Jersey Boys (The Four Seasons), Beautiful (Carole King), Summer (Donna Summer) and, more recently, Cher come immediately to mind. Now you can add to that list the World Premiere production of Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical, now onstage at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick.

Conceived, written and performed by Laiona Michelle, the story unfolds over the course of two concerts: the first, in 1968, soon after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the second, in Switzerland in 1976. Through Nina Simone’s recollections as she performs, we flashback to her past as a classical music child prodigy (Johann Sebastian Bach was her favorite composer); her fraught relationship with her mother and father (especially the former); her abusive, yet sometimes loving, marriage; her nervous breakdown; her involvement in civil rights activities; her jazz performances; and her ultimate coronation as the High Priestess of Soul.

Michelle literally inhabits the role of Nina Simone, delivering her iconic musical numbers with verve and aplomb, and convincingly voicing each of the many characters in her life. The difference between her 1968 performance and the one in 1976 puts the development of an artist on full display, the latter performer more polished and sure. The unnerving opening scene, where Simone is ushered into the concert hall via a back door to the sound of police sirens and angry voices is emblematic of the time when there was a race war, and Nina Simone was told not to sing protest songs lest she cause a riot. Michelle’s Simone’s anger simmers just below the surface until it finally explodes in “Mississippi Goddam,” which she wrote in response to the killing of the three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, MS.

By the time 1976 rolls around, Simone has moved to Switzerland, has been labeled a jazz musician, escaped her abusive husband Andy and abandoned the church, declaring, “Music is my religion.” Her anger in the second act is more personal than political. Discovered playing piano in church at the age of eight, Eunice Kathleen Waymon (later to become Nina Simone) dreamed of performing at Carnegie Hall, a hope that is dashed by her rejection from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Despite producing more than 40 jazz and soul albums, she continues to insist that she is “classical,” carrying that disappointment throughout her entire life. Michelle’s depiction of the young Nina Simone and her interaction with her mother, who thought jazz was the “devil’s music,” is very poignant, especially because her musical success supported her parents for years. Simone’s emotional fragility is also on full display, with her trio (Mark Fifer, Saadi Zain, Kenneth Alters) very protective of her when she breaks down.

My only quibble with Laiona Michelle’s performance is the very nasal voice she uses when Nina Simone speaks. It sounds more New Jersey than North Carolina and grates on the ears. In YouTube interviews, Simone’s voice, while sounding more cultured, retains some of the softness of her Southern, country roots. That aside, Michelle’s masterful musical delivery puts Simone’s full musical range on display, from the hot “Break Down and Let It All Out,” the aforementioned “Mississippi Goddam” in Act I to the quieter “Little Girl Blue,” “Ne Me Quittez Pas,” “Ooh Child” and “My Way” in the Act II.  In addition to Michelle’s accompaniment of herself on the piano (she plays a mean Bach), the musical direction by Mark Fifer and musicians is superb.

Turning the two concerts into a play also poses a unique challenge, one that is conquered by the magnificent backdrop that telegraphs Simone’s rich inner life to the audience. Inspired by Thomas Hart Benton ‘s “America Today” panels and African textile patterns, set designer Shoko Kambara and scenic charge artist Jim Hancocks and his team created a backdrop featuring a giant keyboard, a bust of Johann Sebastian Bach and a riot of color to take the audience on an “emotional rollercoaster through Ms. Simone’s past.” Ari Fulton’s costumes further invoke the past, especially the fringe, long hair and sideburns so popular in the 1970s.

Perhaps the most touching takeaway from Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical is that she desperately wanted to be loved and accepted for who she was—a feeling that haunted her until her death in 2003. And her love of Bach never wavered as she fused jazz and gospel with classical music. Indeed, just listening to Michelle’s Simone rhapsodize about the nuances and “clinginess” of a Bach fugue is almost worth the price of admission. Laoina Michelle brings this fabulous, albeit troubled, artist to life for an enriching and enlightening evening. You’ll go home humming the title song and invest it with new meaning, for Nina Simone truly was “Little Girl Blue.”

Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical will be performed at the George Street Playhouse, 103 College Farm Road, New Brunswick, through February 24. For information and tickets, visit www.GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org online or call the box office at 732.246.7717.