‘Little Girl Blue’ celebrates Nina Simone in words and music

By Liz Keill

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – George Street Playhouse has brought a heartwarming story to the stage in “Little Girl Blue: the Nina Simone Musical.”

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Laiona Michelle, who delivered a powerful performance in “American Hero” at George Street, returns in a play she developed that showcases her singing abilities. She’s accompanied with a nifty trio of musicians: Mark Fifer, keyboards and conductor, Saadi Zain, bass and Kenneth Salters, drum/percussion.

Her life story is told mostly through music, as Michelle moves effectively from time and place and, occasionally, from character to character. Act I is set in 1968, during the civil right movement, with references and tributes to Martin Luther King. Act II shifts to 1976, when Simone moves to Switzerland and then to Liberia, Africa.

She recounts moments of her childhood, when she learned to sing in church where her father was a minister. During her first formal performance, her parents were seated in the front row. But they were told to move so a white family could sit there instead. At the age of 8, she refused to perform until her parents could be in the front, too. The experience sparked her determination to support the civil rights movement and Dr. King’s call for fairness, for those who had been discriminated against, to take a stand and find their voices.

Her story is interwoven with difficulties in marriage and some of the hard knocks along the way. Interspersed with it all are a variety of musical numbers, including the familiar “Love Me or Leave Me” and “Little Girl Blue.” There are other stirring segments such as, “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free.”  The lilting “Ne Me Quitte Pas” by Jacques Brel is quietly lyrical, while  “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” has a haunting quality. Michelle brings her own vibe and distinctive interpretation to “My Way,” so long associated with Frank Sinatra. She demonstrates her own strength and determination in recounting a life that has had its share of tragedy and hope.

Director Devanand Janki has kept this musical tale constantly intriguing, with lighting by Xavier Pierce and costumes by Ari Fulton. Shoko Kambara’s scenic design includes a pastel mural-like backdrop of piano keys and muted figures, while the later scenes merge African textiles and patterns. Interwoven with the songs are musical themes by Johann Sebastian Bach. They reflect Simone’s early ambition to be a classical pianist.

“Little Girl Blue” is well worth a visit to George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. Performances continue through Feb. 24. For tickets, call 732-246-7717 or visit GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org.