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A CurtainUp NJ Review
Little Girl Blue
Whether you know anything about Simone's astonishing career and her complicated and too often troubled life, Little Girl Blue , is a show that is going to keep you in thrall for its entirety. Michelle, whose straight dramatic performance last season at George Street playing a veteran of the Afghanistan war in Christopher Demos-Brown's American Hero was just a glimmer of the powerhouse performer, a stunning reflection of musical artistry.
This play is Michelle's debut as a writer. She has a winner. She brings with her interpretation of Simone a dramatic intensity and emotional detail that allows for a perspective we rarely get in this kind of presentation. That isn't all. Michelle has a terrific collaborator in director Devanand Janki whose staging keeps the play's emotional dynamics at the fore without compromising the play's musical core.
Michelle's voice has its own distinction, one that effectively gets to the heart and soul of some seventeen songs associated with Simone. It naturally includes her 1958 hit "I Loves You Porgy" from George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" and also the play's title song by Rodgers and Hart. In what could have simply been a respectful tribute, Michelle has enriched her gritty text with sections of personal and indeed painful recollections as recitative.
Accompanied by three on-stage musicians -- Mark Fifer (Keyboard/Conductor, Saadi Zain (Bass), Kenneth Salters (Drums/Percussion) each of whom is nicely characterized as long-time associates and friends, Michelle also takes to the keys on occasion to add another level to her performance. Most entertaining is her relationship with the musicians who have to deal with Simone's instabilities.
The play is structured to depict two concerts, the first at the Westbury Music Fair in 1968 at which her stage appearance is flanked by armed police. The time is shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Dedicated to Dr. King's memory, it is powerful, unsettling opening as Simone appeals to the rumbling crowd, supporters and agitators to take their seats.
"Feeling Good," the song that Leslie Bricusse & Anthony Newley wrote for their show "The Roar of the Greasepaint...," "Love Me or Leave Me," and others including her own composition-- the controversial "Mississippi Goddam," serve as powerful transitions to a series of unsparing events over Simone's lifetime. This often heart-breaking narrative/flashbacks that include Simone's young years studying to be a concert pianist, and her subsequent rejection from the Curtis Institute because she is a woman and black.
Throughout the play, Michelle's segues from song to story and back are shifted seamlessly. This, as we see her as a performer, recording star and various characters including that of her mother, a Methodist minister who disapproved of the "devil's music" and her abusive husband, who is also her manager. Realistically and to the playwright's credit, Simone's mostly blistering insights display a complicated woman, severely tested by being bi-polar.
Simone's emotional ups and downs play an important role in the play's second half— a performance in 1976 by Simone at the Montreaux Jazz Festival. The songs including "Come On Back Jack," Jacques Brel's "Ne Me Quitte Pas," the traditional "Black is the Color... and a rousing but exceedingly poignant "My Way" become a deepening understanding of that little girl blue.
The play is performed entirely on a raised bandstand with a turntable. The backdrop is a stunning hand-painted art-deco mural, the work of set designer Shoko Kambara. The splendid costumes designed by Ari Fulton reflect the change in eras. The lighting by designer Xavier Pierce is notable as are all the technical aspects of this fine world premiere production. It is, however, Michelle's powerful singing and searing introspection of an iconic American soul that makes this show worthy of a long life.
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Little Girl Blue By Laiona Michelle Directed by Devanand Janki
Additional Material by Devanand Janki
Arrangements & Original Material: Mark Fifer
Musical Direction: Mark Fifer
Scenic Design: Shoko Kambara
Costume Design: Ari Fulton
Lighting Design: Xavier Pierce
Sound Design: Karin Graybash
Hair & Wig Design: Leah Loukas
Production Manager: Christopher J. Bailey
Production Stage Manager: Ernie Fimbres
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission
George Street Playhouse, 103 College Farm Road, New Brunswick, N.J.
From 01/29/19;opened 02/01/19; ends 02/24/19
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 02/01/19
NJ Theatre Alliance
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