Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron
How complex was the super star and "High Priestess of Soul"? She was so complex that in order to tell her life story, four distinctly different singers portray her in the Karamu House production of David Grapes, Robert Neblett and Vince Di Mura's Simply Simone, directed by Ed Ridley, Jr.
This repeat production had its area premiere last September and features returning singers Sheffia Randall Dooley, CorLesia Smith, and Mariama Whyte as well as newcomer Mary-Francis R. Miller. They represent four major portions of Simone's career, from her starting out as a youngster, to lounge singer, to political activist to matron.
Eunice was the sixth child of a preacher and an overly religious mother. The young musical prodigy dreamed of being a concert pianist and, after attending The Juilliard School of Music in New York, had a well received auditioned for the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she was denied admission due to racial discrimination. In order to make a living, she changed her name to Nina Simone (so as not to embarrass her family) and began performing in nightclubs in Atlantic City, where she was forced to sing along with her own accompaniment.
Through music and movement the show tells the story of her life, including numerous failed relationships, battles with the record companies over royalties, and a fight with the IRS that forced her out of the country. It also touches on her friendships with such luminaries as Martin Luther King, Jr., Lorraine Hansberry, Leroy Jones, and Langston Hughes as well as the stormy relationships with her father, mother and own daughter.
The music features one hit after another that covers all manner of emotions, and includes music that was either written by Simone or made popular by her during her career. At the performance I attended, the audience reaction was a joy to behold as the four singers took turns on such classics as "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," "I Loves You Porgy," "Strange Fruit," "Mississippi Goddam," "See-Line Woman," "Trouble in Mind," and "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." In all, 27 songs are performed.
What makes this production so spectacular is a variety of elements. First and foremost are the singers who are comfortable enough on stage to truly enjoy what they are doing, singing some really great songs. Secondly, the absolutely amazing sound from the four-piece orchestra, directed by Caroline Jackson Smith, that includes Ed Ridley, Jr. on keyboards, Elijah Gilmore on percussion, Bradford L. McGhee on guitar, and Kevin Byous on bass.
Lastly is the venue. After an extensive multi-million dollar renovation, the new Jelliffe Theatre is a star in its own right. Especially important for this show is the revamped sound system that sends crystal clear voices and accompaniment clear up to the top rows with all their subtle nuances intact.
There are some adult themes covered that may not be suitable for youngsters, but the music is universal in its appeal.
Back by popular demand, Simply Simone makes a triumphant return to the newly renovated and spectacular Jelliffe Theatre. You will not simply witness this performance; you will become a part of it. Come see an old favorite in its new and shiny surroundings.
Simply Simone, through August 5, 2018, at Karamu House, 2355 E 89th St., Cleveland OH. For ticket information you can call 216-795-7070 or go on line to www.karamuhouse.org.