Nina Simone’s life encompassed much more than musical innovation.
The singer used her career as a jazz, blues, soul and protest singer as a springboard, offering messages about justice and equality through her music. By the time Simone died in 2003 at the age of 70, she’d carved out a significant place in both popular music and the American civil rights movement.
Unfortunately, the Shadow Theatre Company’s original production “An Evening With Nina” fails to fully meet its ambitious mission: To explore Simone’s life in a deep, comprehensive way. Playwright Hugo Jon Sayles wrote the piece as a deeper examination of the singer’s life, a drama that fuses contemporary action with biographical perspective.
While the show’s 28 songs offer a rich selection from Simone’s musical career, the sheer density of the score tends to subtract from the storylines about the title character. Add an entirely separate set of subplots related to the supporting characters, and there’s simply not enough space to fully explore Simone’s often complicated life.
Hugo Jon Sayles wrote the piece after the Shadow’s production of “Simply Simone” was abruptly cancelled earlier this year following copyright conflicts and royalty issues. The new piece goes beyond simply covering Simone’s discography and biography, incorporating modern characters and contemporary situations.
The new musical takes place on the anniversary of Simone’s death in April 2010. Simone, played by local R&B recording artist Stephanie Hancock, returns from the dead, appearing in a run-down club in North Carolina, just as a group of five musicians arrive before a gig. The group quickly realizes they’re talking to the late legend, and they immediately incorporate Simone into the band.
As the musicians prepare for their looming concert, their own inner struggles emerge. Band manager Brood (Hashim Hakeem) is caught in a love triangle with singers Simone (Nandi McDowell) and band leader Jamila (Dominique Christina). Chai (Jenna Moll Reyes) is estranged from her father; Rain (Lynnette Holmes) is secretly battling advanced cancer.
The actors juggle the separate dramas and vignettes from Simone’s life — her upbringing in North Carolina, her relationship with her father, her own stormy history in love. The dialogue constantly shifts, focusing on immediate issues before veering off onto Simone’s life. Combined with the near constant score, this dual dynamic can be confusing.
As Simone takes on the role of adviser and confidante, her songs serve as a complementary narration. The selections range from covers of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” Jacque Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” and Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” to definitive protest and social songs such as “Mississippi Goddamn” and “Revolution.” Every actor — including Hakeem — take a turn in interpreting Simone’s work.
While Hancock offers the strongest singing voice in the cast, the actors each have their impressive moments, and the ensemble performances are particularly impressive. Musical director, Shadow board member and DaJazz Records President Michael Hancock adds a recorded soundtrack that’s specifically tailored to the piece. Unfortunately, amplification issues and a muddled sound mix sometimes take away from Hancock’s compelling musical arrangements.
Still, the musical element remains the strongest part of the production. As a retrospective on Simone’s musical legacy, an ambitious tour through her many styles and idiom, the piece works. As a biography and a drama tackling contemporary issues, “An Evening With Nina” needs a bit more room to breathe.
Two stars out of four.
“An Evening With Nina” runs through Dec. 12 at the Shadow Theatre Company, 1468 Dayton St. For more information, call 720-857-8000 or log on to www.shadowtheatre.com.