Nina Simone, who died in 2003 at the age of 70, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018. I’m not sure she would have welcomed the honor.
As “Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical” — which is currently playing at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, in its world premiere — emphasizes, Simone didn’t even like being labelled “jazz.” She’s a classical artist, she feels. Being denied admission, as a young woman, to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia — because of racial prejudice, she believes — opened a wound that never healed.
Laiona Michelle, who wrote the musical and stars as Simone, doesn’t just want to celebrate Simone’s music. Her goal is, clearly, to create a vivid portrait of this groundbreaking and fiercely independent but also troubled artist. There is no storyline, per se. The drama of “Little Girl Blue” consists of delving deeper and deeper into the core of what her life — and, to some extent, her times — was all about.
There are 17 musical numbers in “Little Girl Blue,” which is divided into two concert sets: The first act takes place at the Westbury Music Fair in Long Island, where Simone performed shortly after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968; the second jumps ahead nearly a decade to her 1976 performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. In between numbers, and sometimes in the middle of numbers, Michelle talks to the crowd, or banters with her generally easy-going, casually virtuosic band members (keyboardist Mark Fifer, bassist Saadi Zain and drummer Kenneth Salters) or flashes back to important episodes in her life. As a result, “Little Girl Blue” feels like a concert with a monologue laced throughout it.
The only other characters are two policemen who escort Simone to the stage and stand on either side of it throughout most of the first act, silent and unmoving, presumably stationed there in case the crowd gets unruly as Simone mourns King and vents about the discrimination she has dealt with, in her own life.
Michelle — who co-starred, last year, in a very different kind of play at the George Street Playhouse, the topical drama “American Hero” — sings and plays piano well. She also sustains intensity throughout the evening, whether Simone is commanding the stage like a diva or feeling wistful or vulnerable. But as is almost inevitable in a play depicting such a distinctive musical figure as Simone, Michelle can’t duplicate the larger-than-life force of Simone’s voice. This, I suspect, will be a bigger issue for major Simone fans than for those who aren’t particularly familiar with her recordings.
The set design, by Shoko Kambara, creates a sense of show-biz elegance with its lush, gold-colored curtains and stunning backdrop — a huge mural done in earthy colors that evokes the tumultuousness of Simone’s life. It feel like we’re watching Simone in small nightclubs when, in fact, the actual shows that the musical is based on were in larger settings.
Kambara, costume designer Ari Fulton and hair/wig designer Leah Loukas also succeed in making the set and the actors look almost completely different in the two sets, to reflect the changes in fashion from 1968 to 1976.
One of the most remarkable things about “Little Girl Blue” is that even though it never leaves the concert stage, it still feels like a journey.
“Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical” is at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through Feb. 24. Visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.