Review: Theatrical Outfit’s ‘Simply Simone’ is simply superb


In the interest of getting it out of the way, before moving on to substantially bigger and better praises to be sung, let’s first dispense with the inherent flaw in “Simply Simone.” Like the vast majority of “jukebox” revues that chart the life and career of a famous musician — in this case, Nina Simone — Theatrical Outfit’s new show can be as dramatically sketchy as it is musically spectacular.

The script (by David Grapes and Robert Neblett) skims through most of the pertinent biographical details: her impoverished upbringing in the Jim Crow-era South; how this young black girl overcame those odds to train as a classical pianist at Juilliard; her eventual popularity and fame as an eclectic singer of jazz, the blues, gospel and pop music; and how she found a passion for political activism during the civil rights movement.

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A lot of the narration feels more anecdotal than insightful, mainly serving as so much chit-chat to segue between all the stylish production numbers. In one beat, she’s rejected for enrollment to study at Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, and in the next, she’ll note, “Before you know it, I’m the toast of New York,” where she’s rubbing elbows with Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin.

There are casual, fleeting mentions of abusive husbands and illicit lovers, swindling managers and record companies, and legal problems with the IRS. Later, the co-writers delve somewhat deeper into her unresolved family issues, but in referential deference to the celebrated object of their attention, Simone’s temperamental volatility (and reported bipolar disorder) is simply swept aside.

Again, that’s par for the course with this type of show.

Where the Outfit’s transcendent “Simply Simone” rises so boldly above the norm — and truly soars — is in how imaginatively and evocatively envisioned it is by director/choreographer Patdro Harris, how beautifully accompanied under the musical direction of Chika Kaba Ma’atunde (leading a three-piece band), and how tremendously it’s acted and vocalized by a quartet of uniformly magnificent performers: Marliss Amiea, Tina Fears, Chani Maisonet and Chelsea Reynolds, representing different stages of Simone’s persona.

Harris’ co-stars function as a perfectly orchestrated ensemble — complementing one another in their many moments together with the sort of “elegance, grace and poise” that was characteristic of Simone, often in striking and resounding four-part harmony, and each of them shines just as brightly and skillfully in her own solos.

In the same way that there isn’t the slightest weak link in the cast, virtually every one of the show’s 30 or so greatest hits is a highlight. Standouts among the group numbers include “Balm in Gilead,” “Why?” and “Take Me to the Water,” the lively “Liberian Calypso” and a lilting “Here Comes the Sun.” Among a few duets, Maisonet and Reynolds register with a memorable “I Loves You Porgy,” Reynolds and Amiea with an equally captivating “Alone Again, Naturally.”

There’s Fears’ solos “I Put a Spell on You,” “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” and “Mississippi Goddam.” Amiea’s “Trouble in Mind” and “Sinnerman.” Maisonet’s “Love Me or Leave Me” and “Strange Fruit.” Reynolds’ “Beautiful Land” and “The Other Woman.”

Despite the fairly formulaic framework, Harris and company otherwise deliver an embarrassment of riches, and of the highest order.

THEATER REVIEW

“Simply Simone”

Grade: A-

Through April 15. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. $20-$48. The Balzer Theater at Herren’s, 84 Luckie St. N.W., Atlanta. 678-528-1500, www.theatricaloutfit.org.

Bottom line: Splendidly directed, gloriously performed.



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