This show is an artistic triumph at George Street Playhouse
Let me start out by saying Laiona Michelle is a treasure. She stunned audiences with her gritty performance in American Hero last season at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. Now she’s back at George Street, unveiling her formidable singing voice and skills as a playwright in the world premiere of her new play, Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical.
Ms. Michelle does not so much imitate Nina Simone as she captures the spirit, the talent, the enormous drive and conviction of the singer, pianist, composer, and civil rights activist. The show incorporates songs composed by Simone such as “Four Women”, “Sinnerman”, and the iconic “Mississippi Goddam”. It also uses songs recorded during her long career. “Love Me or Leave Me”, “Feeling Good”, Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas”, Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”, Rodgers and Hart’s “Little Girl Blue”, and the traditional song “Black Is the Color (of My True Love’s Hair)” portray the versatility and musical depth of Nina Simone. She has been and continues to be an influence on singers in a variety of genres across many decades.
Ms. Michelle’s acting talent comes to the fore in the second act
Little Girl Blue covers the period between 1968 and 1976. The first act is a recreation in part of a concert Simone gave following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In it, Ms. Michelle combines Ms. Simone’s vocal style with her activism, playing to and with the audience, her critics, and the press. The second act takes place roughly a decade later, featuring a partial recreation of one of her appearances at the Montreaux Jazz Festival and using flashbacks to present formative scenes from her youth in North Carolina. It is in this act that Ms. Michelle’s acting talent comes to the fore, convincingly playing Simone from a young girl to an artist in her early 40’s.
While the story is focused on Nina Simone alone, Ms. Michelle is supported throughout by a talented musical trio who portray various incarnations of Nina’s band members across the decade, acting at times as bodyguards, nursemaids, sounding boards, and musical collegaues. They are conductor and keyboardist Mark Fifer; Saadi Zain on both bass guitar and bass fiddle; and drummer/percussionist Kenneth Salters. Guiding all of them is director Devanand Janki. He has done an outstanding job and who is credited with supplying additional material as well.
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame posthumously in 2018, Nina Simone was a towering figure in many genres of music, both as a performer and as a writer. Laiona Michelle has gifted us with a play and a performance that shines a light on one of the great artists of our time. George Street Playhouse is to be credited with producing this world premiere vision of the life and times of Nina Simone. Little Girl Blue is an artistic triumph, and I strongly encourage you to see it.
Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical is presented by the George Street Playhouse on the Cook College campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick through February 24, 2019. For tickets and information, visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.