Big things usually start small, so let me begin with an understatement: FELA! is no ordinary Broadway musical. Yes, it’s bigger, brighter, and louder than almost everything else in town. But its heated moral core, bent toward social and political justice, bestows our toe-tapping with a wakening sense of substance and struggle. The show’s fusion of beats and biography packs an inescapable punch, pulling off an ambitious and vivid concept with flying colors.
It’s all too rare, on today’s Broadway, to see big budget matched with such a big brain. The show has certainly gotten the star treatment these past few years — FELA! ran off-Broadway for one month in 2008, transferred to Broadway in 2009, and won three Tony awards in 2010 before starting to tour nationally — and it takes temporary root at Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall through this week riding a pretty joyous swell of popular support.
But the show’s shamelessly upbeat and catchy grooves drive us down the road to harsh reality, not fantasy, and puts voice to some gravely serious stuff. There’s a history lesson lurking, like a shark in the riptide, behind these shimmering waves of Afrobeat. Fun rarely feels this high-stakes — a thrilling experience that makes FELA! not just one of the most fun musicals in recent memory, but also one of the most important.
Real-world relevance adds some necessary ballast to the show, created by Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis, which chronicles of the life of Nigerian singer and activist Fela Kuti through a series of fabulously played (and unapologetically bombastic) concert scenes, set in Kuti’s Lagos nightclub, The Shrine, in 1977. We play visitors to The Shrine, and Kuti is our preacher, emcee, and star performer all wrapped into one.
The raw soul by which many of us recognize Kuti’s recordings, particularly from some of his slower and smokier sessions, are a little too lo-fi for this production, which had a great run here in 2011 as well. Under FELA!’s neon spotlight we see the character of Kuti dialed up to 110% showman, and we absorb his message through what feels more like a rocket-fueled, amped-up mixtape of Kuti songs than a genuine snapshot of that famous club 35 years ago.
But this is Broadway — we’re here for the rush. And the moolah poured into this venture yields some eye-popping results. The back wall is a particular marvel — it’s constantly awash in video, often in aid of the storytelling, and against strong odds it supports rather than distracts, smoothly uniting occasional subtitles with archival footage, special-effect lighting tricks, and expressionistic animated collages of color. It’s way over the top, but doesn’t feel it.
These smatterings of image help to illustrate Fela Kuti’s rise to national prominence in Nigeria, his innovative blending of jazz, soul, funk, and traditional Yoruba rhythms into the sound we know as Afrobeat, and his loud, proud push against the country’s military dictatorship.
As Kuti, Duain Richmond (playing the role alternately with Adesola Osakalumi) is a live wire, bringing a new level of fierceness to the role. Richmond leaps and gyrates his way through numbers like “B.I.D. (Breaking It Down)” and “International Thief Thief” — this sort of fervor is particularly wonderful at the top of the show, as the overture cascades directly into the opener “Everything Scatter” — but his indignant streak is equally strong, and his rebelliousness comes unbottled in violent jets. Richmond’s quick flips back and forth between joy and fury keep him attractively unpredictable throughout the show.
Closes February 10, 2013
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F Street NW
2 hours, 35 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $30 – $100
Wednesday thru Sunday
We have a grand old time, grinning and nodding our heads, for the first few songs. But Kuti’s music runs red with passionate effort against violence, oppression, and injustice (hit songs like “Zombie” prominently featured in the show’s set list, mince no words in condemning the system).
By the time the Nigerian army raids Kuti’s compound mid-show, attacking and murdering several characters, we have come to hear that drum beat differently. It keeps us in line, and in time, with the oppressed, perpetually pushing for change. We play to fight, and we fight to play. So even if you’re only there to tap your toes, let them keep tapping, and tapping… big things usually start small.
FELA! . Book by Jim Lewis & Bill T. Jones . Music and Lyrics by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti . Additional Lyrics by Jim Lewis; Additional Music by Aaron Johnson & Jordan McLean . Tour directed and choreographed by Maija Garcia . Presented by Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by Hunter Styles