A new musical is now playing at New World Stages. Little Girl Blue is a retrospective of American singer, songwriter, arranger, pianist, and civil rights activist Nina Simone. The production informs, entertains, and engages the audience. The excellent direction of this show is by Devanand Janki. Before opening in NY, this show premiered at George Street Playhouse, New Brunswick, NJ in February 2019. In summer 2021, it was part of the Goodspeed by the River series.
The multi-talented Laiona Michelle plays the leading role as Nina Simone. She also wrote the book for the show. Her performance embodies the spirit of the artist and makes you feel like you are actually at a Nina Simone concert. She captures her audience with passion and outstanding vocals when she sings. Michelle also plays the piano very well on several songs. She turns in a first rate acting performance portraying Nina Simone. This is a performance you will long remember seeing.
In addition to Laiona Michelle, the show brings the band onstage with her. Mike Fifer plays Keyboard and Conducts. He also serves as the show’s Music Director and Arranger. Kenneth Salters plays Drums and Saadi Zain plays Double Bass/Electric Bass.
Story and Music
The stage is set to be a cabaret club with a piano and musical instruments on stage. But Nina Simone and her band enter from the back of the theater escorted by two police officers. The police stand at either side of the stage. Eventually they leave only to return at a tense point in the performance.
It is 3 days after Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination and concerns about rioting taking place are in the air. Mention is made that Simone has to be careful about what songs she performs and what she says on stage. She’s been told not stir things up. Well written dialog in this Act allows her character to express how she is feeling about losing Dr. King. She has stood by his side and she expresses what a loss his death is.
The show begins with the song “Feeling Good.” This song, a fervent call for freedom, is a perfect way to begin the show that evening with all that is gong on and the obvious despair Simone feels. As the performance continues, she tells stories between songs about significant events in her life. Born Eunice Waymon in North Carolina, she tells of taking piano lessons as a child. Her lifelong desire is to be a classical pianist and she was a staunch admirer of Bach’s music. A devastating life event was when she was turned away from entering the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Instead, she tells of performing “jazz,” writing her own music, and covering the music of others composers always with her own unique interpretation.
Songs accompany the stories the character tells such as her relationship with “My Father.” She meets a man who becomes her controlling husband and we hear “I Put a Spell on You” and “Little Liza Jane.” As the show continues, tension mounts as Simone is reaching a point where she expresses anger. The police return. That leads to the final song of the act, “Angry Black Woman.”
“Angry Black Woman”
In a recent interview with Playbill.com, Laiona Michelle recounts that Nina Simone was often called an “Angry Black Woman.” She says, “I wanted to give Nina’s anger context. I wanted to remind people why she was angry, why she wrote protest songs like ‘Mississippi Goddamn.’ Here she was, supposedly a citizen of this country, and yet she and her people had to march and demand human rights in a country that hailed itself the ‘Land of the Free.’ She wasn’t free in her own country.”
Michelle then explains that she wrote the song “Angry Black Woman” with Musical Director Mark Fifer. The song opens with a few chords from “Mississippi Goddam” which closed the first act in the New Brunswick run of this show. This new song closes the First Act. It is powerful and it makes a strong impact as she leaves the stage using the same route as she came in on.
Second Act Little Girl Blue
This act takes place in Mintreux, Switzerland also in a cabaret club venue. It opens with the title song of the show “Little Girl Blue.” It is 8 years later and much has happened in Simone’s life. We learn that her husband became violent and she lost a child she was carrying. Her marriage is no more and she experiences mental challenges which plague her throughout the rest of her life. She moved to Europe and travels to many places including a trip to Liberia. Several songs in this Act that really standout are Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” The final song provides a positive ending to the show as Simone, dressed in a beautiful gown adorned with fine accessories, sings “My Way.” Her regal appearance well portrayed by Laiona Michelle solidifies the heights she reached in her lifetime.
Going to See Little Girl Blue
I reviewed this show when it ran at George Street Playhouse and thought it was sensational. It was a thrill to see it again at New World Stages this past week. It was very good in New Brunswick (sorry I missed CT) and now with some changes and additions, it is sure to be a hit.
As a very young girl, I remember some of the music of Nina Simone. I did not understand the deeper levels of her music then. I could sing along to the words and think they sounded good. But what the words actually meant to Nina Simone, well, I’m still learning that. This show is a good step in that direction for me. I hope many will feel the same way because there are a lot of Civil Rights struggles still going on. Can’t help but wonder what Nina would think today.
To read more about Little Girl Blue, or to purchase tickets, go to the official website for the show, littlegirlblue.nyc . Ticketing is through Telecharge.
Little Girl Blue is scheduled to run through May 22, 2022 at New World Stages.
New World Stages is in the heart of the theatre district, west of Times Square between 8th and 9th Avenues, easily accessed by four major subway lines. Parking is conveniently located on 49th and 50th Streets, as well as many other neighborhood lots using an app like Best Parking or Spot Hero. There are a number of restaurants in and around Worldwide Plaza and on 9th Avenue in nearby Hell’s Kitchen.
Photos by Julieta Cervantes