nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
July 10, 2012
I first saw Fela! two and a half years ago, when it was first produced on Broadway. At the time, it was one of the most revolutionary, energetic and inspiring shows I had ever seen. I'm thrilled to say it's as good today as it was then…and its message, highlighting the power of art, is as important as ever.
Directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, Fela! is based on the life of musician and political activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. The moment you step into the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, you step into Fela's club, The Shrine. It's 1979 and the police may be patrolling the Nigerian streets outside, Fela informs us, but in here we will listen to his Afrobeat music. Fela's native country has become too unsafe for him, but before he flees, he will play one last concert and tell us his story.
Fela's Afrobeat music is catchy and energetic—a melding of jazz, funk and African rhythms. The lyrics are pointed, attacking the oil industry, the corrupt Nigerian government and a variety of other injustices. Bill T. Jones' choreography is bold and athletic—you have never seen bodies move like this! The insanely talented ensemble is dancing when you enter the theatre and for two and a half hours they never cease; indefatigable, the dancers execute their moves with precision and joy. An onstage band plays Fela's contagiously rhythmic, politically-charged songs, including "Zombie," "Expensive Shit" and "Coffin for Head of State."
Sahr Ngaujah, as Fela, is an incomparable performer. Sweat pours off of him as he sings, dances, and performs monologues, all the while engaging and entertaining us. Marina Draghici's costumes are bold and sexy, while Peter Negrini's projections provide context for the story.
Fela Anikulapo-Kuti saw corruption, injustice and passivity and voiced his frustration and anger through his songs. "With music as our weapon," Fela and his crew brought attention and change. Nothing stopped him—not imprisonment nor an army raid on his house that injured many of the members of his "Kalakuta republic" and killed his mother. Despite Fela's tremendous impact, I had never heard of him before I saw this show. I am so grateful to Bill T. Jones and the team of Fela! for bringing this inspiring, but largely unknown, story to light.
Never have I seen such full-body commitment—and such joy!—onstage. Fela! is truly an experience not to be missed!