nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 2, 2009
Go see Fela! You've never seen a Broadway musical that's anything like it.
Its first act contains the most exciting dancing to reach Broadway since Twyla Tharp's Movin' Out—not really a surprise considering that its creator is renowned choreographer Bill T. Jones. Its second act contains an extended musical sequence—"Iba Obisa/Shakara," in which the title character summons the spirit of his dead mother—that is thrillingly imaginative, solemn, and utterly alien: a triumph of collaboration among Jones and his designers Marina Draghici, Robert Wierzel, Robert Kaplowitz, and Peter Negrini that is both transforming and transporting. And its cast, led by the remarkable Sahr Ngaujah and featuring the incomparable Lillias White and the stunning Saycon Sengbloh, is superb.
It tells the story of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, who was a revolutionary musician/performer who invented a genre called Afrobeat and who led a long life of activist rebellion against the corrupt Nigerian government. This is recent history—Fela lived from 1938 until 1997 and thrived from the late 1960s onward—but it's unfamiliar to most Americans, I think. For me, the most exciting aspects of the show happen near the beginning, when Fela explains and illustrates the origins of Afrobeat. Not only did I gain an appreciation for the form, but I felt briefly immersed in what it might have been like to live in a country trying to transform itself from colony to independent nation. Fela's music was an important component of that transformation, and the show brings his contribution to life, not just in an academic way but in the joyous and passionate way in which it must have been felt when it took hold.
The musical's book, crafted by Jones and his co-conceiver Jim Lewis, uses the very effective framing device of a performance at the Shrine, the club Fela created and ran in the 1970s in Lagos. Outside, we are told, soldiers buzz about like mosquitoes trying to keep customers away. But the adventurous souls who have made it in (and we in the audience are lucky to count ourselves among them tonight) are here to witness what Fela says is his final show in Nigeria. The persecution of him and his family by the Nigerian authorities has driven him to escape, he tells us. This valedictory show traces his journey to this pivotal moment: Fela and his fellow performers recall and sometimes re-enact the important events of his personal history, guided always by the spirit of his late mother Funmilayo, whose portrait looks down onto the stage and who occasionally materializes (in the person of Ms. White) for a rafter-shaking, soul-stirring song.
Fela is an astonishing creature. He sings, he dances, he plays several musical instruments, he leads the band and directs his dancers, and he has written almost all of the material heard in the show. Sahr Ngaujah, a West African/European film/music/hip-hop star, is on stage nearly nonstop in the role, and is a force of nature himself: his energy, talent, and generosity are palpable. (Kevin Mambo alternates with Ngaujah in the role.)
Fela is backed by a chorus of dancers and singers who are kept in near-constant motion by Jones. Costumed exotically (in mod, disco-inspired duds in Act I, and in more traditional garb in Act II), they take part in the story-telling, the singing, and the dancing. Three young men in particular—Ismael Kouyate, Gelan Lambert, and Farai M. Malianga—lead the execution of Jones's eclectic, lively, and unusual choreography. The ensemble comes close to stopping the show a couple of times in its first half, as their gravity- and fatigue-defying moves become infectious.
The tone of Fela's second half is much more serious, and although Jones and his collaborators are able to close the show on nearly as exalted a note as they begin it, the earnestness of their intentions tells on them a bit during this section. One issue I was aware of is a basic lack of information: because most Americans don't know much about Nigerian politics and society, it's hard for us to place Fela's activism in context. Did he leave his country better than he found it? Was he a true revolutionary hero, or a demagogue? Fela doesn't really tell us, though what I know about the state of Nigeria's still corrupt government leaves me wondering.
But if Fela doesn't always achieve its objectives as a cogent work of politically-minded art, it is nevertheless a thrillingly original artistic contribution to American musical theatre. The music and the dancing and the design come together to create a sensual feast of sound, light, color, movement, and rhythm that pulls us in--and away from whatever we came in with. Theatre seldom gets more compellingly visceral than this.