Friday, December 4, 2009
Bill T. Jones should start writing his Tony acceptance speech for best choreography. Nothing else could come close to his electric dancing in Fela!, the new musical about the life of legendary African composer and performer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, which has transferred to Broadway’s Eugene O'Neill Theatre following an acclaimed Off-Broadway run last fall. Jones also directs, so he might just need a speech for that category as well.
Sahr Ngaujah, who is mesmerizing in the title role, also should start writing a speech, as should scenic and costume designer Marina Draghici and lighting designer Robert Wierzel. This is one of the most exciting shows I’ve ever seen. It’s amazing something so innovative made it to Broadway, a place where safe and standard is more the norm.
The entire cast, which must be one of the hardest working casts in Broadway history, should win a Tony. This is one high-energy show. A program note warns audience members that if they have to leave their seats during the show, to look both ways so they won’t collide with a chorus member dancing down the aisles.
It is absolutely thrilling to watch Jones’ dancing begin slowly and rhythmically and build to a fevered, pulsating climax of movement around the stage and into the audience. I was tired when I went into the theatre but was mega-charged when I left. The two hours and 20 minutes fly by.
I had never heard of Fela, whose pioneering Afrobeat music and political activism made him a legend in his homeland of Lagos, Nigeria, and around the world. His music, a blend of jazz, funk and African rhythm and harmonies, is soul-stirring, and his lyrics, which attacked the repressive and corrupt military dictatorships that ruled his country in the late 1970s, are provocative. Ngaujah is so convincing I felt I was watching the real Fela, who died in 1997 at 58 of complications from AIDS. Because the role is so physically and vocally demanding, Kevin Mambo alternates in the role three times a week to Ngaujah’s five.
Fela’s story unfolds as he holds his final concert at the Shrine, the nightclub in Lagos which is at the center of his career. It’s the summer of 1978, six months after his mother, an outspoken feminist, has been killed by the military police. The authenticity of the location is enhanced by the Brooklyn-based Afrobeat orchestra Antibalas and other members of the New York City Afrobeat community, under the direction of Aaron Johnson, which perform Fela's music live onstage. It is further authenticated by the warm lighting and strings of green, blue, yellow and red lights strung around the theatre, making the whole space really feel like a club, especially with the band playing on stage before the show. The audience enters Fela’s world immediately.
While Fela recalls his career at the club, he also remembers -- and recounts in chilling detail -- the harassment and torture from the military police who try to stifle all dissent. He was arrested, beaten and imprisoned numerous times for speaking out against injustice. In one disturbing scene, the police burn down the compound where he lives with his many wives -- his “queens” -- and musicians, hauling the people off the be tortured.
In addition to the extraordinary Ngaujah, the principal cast also features a majestic Lillias White as Fela's mother, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, and Saycon Sengbloh as Sandra, one of his love interests.
Completing the company -- these people deserve to be mentioned! -- are Corey Baker, Hettie Barnhill, Nicole Chantal DeWeever, Lauren Deveaux, Elasea Douglas, Rujeko Dumbutshena, Catherine Foster, Talu Green, Shaneeka Harrell, Chanon Judson, Abena Koomson, Ismael Kouyate, Gelan Lambert, Farai M. Malianga, Shakira Marshall, Afi McClendon, Adesola Osakalumi, Jeffrey Page, Daniel Soto, Jill M. Vallery, J.L. Williams, Iris Wilson and Aimee Graham Wodobode.
Fela! features a book by Jones and Jim Lewis; they use Fela's own music, with Lewis creating additional lyrics.
Tickets are available at the box office, 230 W. 49th St., and through Telecharge.com or (212) 239-6200. For more information, visit www.FelaonBroadway.com.