Nina Simone’s vocal talents, physical presence and spirit are all dazzlingly channeled by Laiona Michelle in her engaging self-written biographical concert-style musical, Little Girl Blue. Ms. Michelle employs just enough of Simone’s cadences, facial expressions and physical gestures to create an authentic characterization while supremely singing over a dozen songs associated with the charismatic vocalist. The show’s well-researched spoken word portions deliver historical facts, biographical details and cultural commentary in the manner of Simone.
The first act is set in a Westbury, New York, concert hall in April 1968, a few days after Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. The societal unrest of the time is depicted through recorded clips. The bouncier second act takes place at Switzerland’s July 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival. “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “Ooh Child” and “My Way” are given exhilarating renditions by Michelle. She is accompanied by a sensational band consisting of conductor Mark Fifer on keyboard, Saadi Zain on double and electric bass and Kenneth Salters on drums. The musicians also interact with Michelle as characters in the show. Also depicted is Simone’s outburst at the audience, which testifies to Simone’s chronicled mental instability in later life.
Director Devanand Janki surrounds the concert presentation with smart stage business involving entrances and exits throughout the theater with a policeman often patrolling during the first act. Lighting designer Dawn Chiang and sound designer Twi McCallum’s efforts bring theatricality to the event. The richly textured stage’s back wall which connotes timelessness is the chief element of Shoko Kambara’s scenic design. Ari Fulton’s splendorous costume design is evidenced by the numerous ensembles Michelle dons, evoking Simone in different eras and in her varying moods. Earon Nealey’s superior wig design completes the striking visual replication.
Nina Simone (1933 – 2003) was born and raised in poverty in North Carolina. Scholarships enabled her to study music with the intention of becoming a concert pianist, when this stalled she veered off into singing. By the late 1950’s she had major success with her eclectic material while developing her tempestuous persona. She was an ardent 1960’s Civil Rights activist, becoming more alienated from the U.S. and clashing with the government. She spent nearly the last 30 years of her life living abroad, in Africa and later Europe.
I feel right at home here in Switzerland. All the fairytales and things that I heard when I was a little girl are real and true. That is why I insist upon living here and being one of you. Real. Not a clown. But civilized. Classique. Not like how they do in America where the Negro is still being shot down in the streets like a rabid dog.
Little Girl Blue is a grand showcase for Laiona Michelle and a powerful affirmation of Nina Simone.
Little Girl Blue (March 5 – May 22, 2022)
New World Stages (Stage V), 340 West 50th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-447-7400 or visit http://www.littlegirlblue.nyc
Running time: two hours and 10 minutes including one intermission