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Theatre in Review: Little Girl Blue (New World Stages)

Laiona Michelle. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

The tumultuous life and embattled career of Nina Simone would seem to be the very stuff of musical theatre, and so it proves with Little Girl Blue. Performer/playwright Laiona Michelle has crafted her own vehicle, which presents Simone in two concerts, years apart, representing very different times in her life. Using the format seen in pieces like Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill and Master Class, in which a star, making a public appearance, publicly unravels, the musical goes for the dramatic jugular early and often. It is rather like Simone herself -- fierce, larger-than-life, sometimes off-putting, and, ultimately, commanding.

Setting the evening's tone, Simone enters in an explosion of cheers, racial slurs, sirens, and flashbulbs. She is appearing at the Westbury Music Fair in April 1968, a few days after the assassination of Martin Luther King and a police escort is needed to get her onstage. Gazing at her all-white audience, she says, sardonically, "I've brought some pain just for you." She has plenty to share: The country is in a state of shock, racial hatred runs rampant, and the star's plainspoken activism has turned her into a political lightning rod. (Among other things, death threats have been made.) Some of the turmoil is personal; for example, her marriage to manager Andy Stroud is publicly coming apart. "My husband instructed me to stick to the program," she adds. Good luck with that.

The first act features several of Simone's signature tunes, including "Feeling Good," "I Put a Spell on You," and "Ain't Got No" (the latter from Hair), but the real drama is the struggle to contain the rage that is consuming her. She is less interested in entertaining her audience than confronting it, calling out a society seething with hatred; when she launches into "Break Down and Let It All Out," one isn't entirely sure that the breakdown isn't hers. It's a potent snapshot of a moment when the country's racial furies were fully unleashed and when hope could be shattered in a second by an assassin's bullet.

It may also be a miscalculation. Michelle has mastered Simone's reedy, insinuating vocal style and her oddly stentorian way of speaking (particularly her habit of stressing the second syllable of many words), yet her characterization is more than a mere impersonation. But when we meet Simone, she is already in extremis, fed up with entertaining and spoiling for a confrontation. (At one point, she channels one of King's speeches, underlining her despair over his killing.) So far, the action is honest to a fault, yet assaultive, pitched at such a high level of passion that it threatens to exhaust.

The mood shifts, slightly but tellingly, in the compelling second act, which takes place eight years later at the Montreux Jazz Festival. If it offers more psychodrama, we get real insight into the ugly impact of racism on her life. A gifted concert pianist, she was denied entrance to the Curtis School of Music because the idea of a Black girl playing Bach was, to the faculty, unimaginable. Offloaded, by virtue of her race, into the jazz world, she achieved a success that, somehow, never really satisfied. More trouble followed in the form of her controlling, abusive husband, and bipolar disorder (the latter mostly hinted at). She is still the proud, powerful figure of the first act -- but her performance is more thoughtful, drawing on a broader emotional palette. This is reflected in her musical performances: "Little Girl Blue" is appealingly moody and introspective. She dissects marriage during a suite of "Ne Me Quitte Pas" and "Black is the Color (Of My True Love's Hair)." Her takes on The Five Stairsteps' hit "Ooh Child" and the Sinatra evergreen "My Way" point to the attainment of a hard-won peace found in her years of European exile.

Whatever its structural oddities, Little Girl Blue etches an indelible portrait of a star who dealt from her own deck, damning the consequences -- and Michelle knows how to put on a show. Her director Devanand Janki has also assembled an assured design team. Shoko Kambara's bandstand set features brick walls imprinted with subtle paisley patterns and lined in curvy supergraphics. Dawn Chiang's classy lighting provides a series of gorgeous, tasteful color washes, adding in ballyhoos and bursts of lightning when things get turbulent. Costume designer Ari Fulton dresses the star first in a taffeta gown in varied shades of blue that looks like a chic strait-jacket; in the second act, she switches to a flame-colored dashiki that heralds her personal transition. The sound design, by Twi McCallum and Jamie Tippett, is unfailingly present and punchy. Michelle is backed by a trio of musicians -- Mark Fifer on keyboards, Kenneth Salters on drums, and Saadi Zain on bass -- who play Simone's long-term team, often putting up her with imperious and demanding behavior while providing excellent support.

Little Girl Blue may not be ideal for Simone first timers, but it paints a vivid portrait of a star ineluctably caught up in the upheavals of her time and of the deep distortions that race can impose on an artist's career. "Don't let me be misunderstood," she sings near the show's end. In this show, that's not even a remote possibility. --David Barbour

(16 March 2022)

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