Musicals often rely on familiar patterns — a patter song here, an “I want” number there — and biographical musicals might well be the most predictable of all. The songs are mixed with enough back story to make the audience feel as if they haven’t just paid a lot of money to watch a cover act, and there is traditionally a juicy, awards-baiting tour de force for the lead performer.
And so it has gone, successfully so in the case of such hits as “The Boy From Oz” (Hugh Jackman as Peter Allen), “Beautiful” (Jessie Mueller as Carole King) and “Tina” (Adrienne Warren as Tina Turner).
Laiona Michelle’s tribute to Nina Simone, “Little Girl Blue,” which recently opened at New World Stages, fits the general format, with some interesting, if not always successfully implemented, idiosyncratic touches. The show’s most distinctive characteristic is its attempt to eschew linear storytelling and its refusal to supply the expected touchstones. This approach befits Simone, who rarely followed predetermined paths, but the resulting impressionistic portrait benefits from a viewer’s familiarity with the basic benchmarks of the subject’s art, personality and life.
Each of the evening’s two acts takes place at a concert from a key period in Simone’s career: The first was in Westbury, N.Y., in April 1968, a few days after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; the second was at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, in July 1976. Backed by a snappy onstage trio led by the music director and pianist Mark Fifer, Michelle portrays Simone with a fiery commitment to the musician’s mood swings, prickliness and arch stylings. She emulates some of the banter and the set lists, but not that much. And since the rights to “Mississippi Goddam” could not be secured for this show, she and Fifer wrote the original “Angry Black Woman” as a kind of conceptual homage.
Mostly those historical concerts act as springboards for snapshots of an often tormented, always searching artist, just like songs were springboards in Simone’s freewheeling live act. (It is not a coincidence that Justin Vivian Bond and Taylor Mac, whose performances can also go from erratic to brilliant and back again in a second, are both superb Simone interpreters.)
If there is a thread, it is the fury of Simone fighting against the expectations placed upon her as a Black female artist. She disliked being labeled jazz, for example. “That is a term invented by white people to identify Black people,” she says in the show. “I. Am. Classical.” But her genius rested in using one to feed the other, leading to some inspired musical juxtapositions by Michelle (who wrote the script with additional material from the director Devanand Janki).
At one point, Simone’s piano teacher Muriel Mazzanovich, a.k.a. Miss Mazzy, says, using her young student’s real name: “Eunice Kathleen Waymon, I’d like for you to meet Johann Sebastian Bach.” Michelle’s Simone immediately goes into the line “Ooh-oo child, things are gonna get easier,” from the Five Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child,” and that beat might well be the most hopeful moment in the show.
“Little Girl Blue” loses focus during the Montreux concert, as the push and pull between Simone’s talent and her demons, her activism and the world around her, becomes harder to pin down — it feels as if Michelle was somehow bedeviled by her subject. Then again, she is not the first, nor the last: Liz Garbus’s Oscar-nominated documentary is tellingly titled “What Happened, Miss Simone?”
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