Fela! is all about the music and the tragically inspiring story of the legendary Nigerian musician, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Immensely stirring and emotional, it was a hit on Broadway, winning almost universal acclaim, and in 2010, Fela! was nominated for eleven Tony Awards and won three (best choreography and best design in costume and sound.)
Fela! is also a complex and enormously ambitious theatrical work. It challenges the accepted norms of Broadway fare by combining a nightclub scenario with traditional musical numbers, a heavy dose of multi-media, and spectacular lighting and sound effects, all the while jumping back and forth from the nightclub itself to the retelling of Fela’s story.
DC audiences are the first to experience Fela! on tour, and the national company brings with it its star, Sahr Ngaujah, as Fela.
When the theatre doors open, you enter ”The Shrine,” a replica of the nightclub which Fela established in the early 1970’s in Lagos as a platform for his “Afrobeat” music and his relentless criticism of the corrupt Nigerian military regime. Searching spotlights pan the house, somewhat ominously, momentarily blinding audience members. Performers drift on stage. Some begin playing instruments while attractive young women, attired in colorful costumes and hair pieces, begin gyrating in nooks and crannies.
The music begins to crescendo; the house lights dim and on to the stage leaps Ngaujah. He immediately takes command — directing the action, the musicians, the dancers and, somewhat to our surprise, the audience.
Fela, or Kuti (the two names seem to be interchangeable), was an exceptional musician who achieved enormous popularity in Africa and Europe. His music is described most aptly in the program notes as “…pounding eclectic rhythms (drawn from music traditions around the globe) mixed with incendiary lyrics to openly attack the corrupt and repressive military dictatorships that rule Nigeria and much of Africa.”
This is to be his last night in Nigeria, he tells us. He can no longer tolerate the pain and suffering inflicted on those he loves the most and he must leave. But he cannot leave without the blessing of his deceased mother.
Music, sound, and story are all mixed together with Ngaujah interacting directly (and often, of necessity, spontaneously) with the audience in present time. It is in the jumping back and forth and the relentless attempt to include the audience completely in the environment of the nightclub where Fela! runs into trouble on occasion.
Are we here to watch a killer Broadway musical or to be active participants in a recreation of Fela’s nightclub performance? The compelling story is sometimes obscured both by the audience interplay and the frenzied pace of the music and movement.
Music was Kuti’s principal weapon in his fight against oppression. Coupled with eye-popping movement and dance, it is also an outlet for expressing emotion which was clearly fundamental to Kuti and his legion of fans. We can be repressed politically and economically, but not musically. It is all about the music. And you really have to be there when it’s happening to fully appreciate and understand its impact. Fela! succeeds spectacularly in capturing and delivering that impact.
At the same time, there is the story. Fela and the exploding popularity of his music became such a big problem for the Nigerian ruling class that eventually they stormed the compound he had built to house his family and The Shrine and burned it to the ground. They perpetrated unspeakable violence on everyone there, most particularly throwing Kuti’s 82 year-old mother, Funmilayo, from a second story window inflicting wounds that would eventually cause her death.
His mother’s death haunts him. Near the end of the show, Fela has succeeded in reaching Funmilayo in the spirit world of his ancestors. She refuses to give him permission to use what happened to her as an excuse to leave Nigeria.
However, the compelling theatricality is at odds with the inspirational story. Cacophonous music, flashing media and melodramatic lighting effects employed during Kuti’s journey to the spirit world get in the way of a vital part of the story having to do with Kuti’s giving himself over fully to the spiritual ways of his mother and his African ancestors.
The performances are uniformly excellent beginning with Ngaujah whom Bill T. Jones, director and choreographer, claims was born to play this role. People who knew Fela Kuti and watched him perform are apparently astonished by how closely Ngaujah has brought him back to life. He is electric.
Melanie Marshall as Funmilayo shows off a beautifully trained operatic voice, nearly stopping the show on more than one occasion. Paulette Ivory as Sandra, Kuti’s collaborator and teacher, wins us softly with her silky voice and seductive movement.
The real star of this show, other than Ngaujah himself, is the ensemble. Jones has given them tremendously challenging movement to follow. They never missed a beat and were effortlessly attuned to one another, such that the flow of the various dance/movement numbers, while undoubtedly meticulously rehearsed, appeared to be improvised.
Fela! is not, in the opinion of this reviewer, a great musical that has successfully opened new territory for the theatre in the same way A Chorus Line, Cats and Les Mis have.
Still, at the end of the day, Fela! is well worth seeing. It is innovative and challenging and superb in many ways. But don’t go expecting to just sit back passively and enjoy great singing and dancing. Being passive just is not a possibility with Fela!
By Jim Lewis & Bill T. Jones with music by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti
Additional Lyrics by Jim Lewis
Additional Music by Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean
Directed and Choreographed by Bill T. Jones
Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company
Reviewed by Larry Bangs
Running time: 2 hours and45 minutes including one 15 minute intermssion