Monday, November 23, 2009

A Musical Shrine

Music and Lyrics by Fela Anikulapo Kuti
Book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones
Directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones
Starring Sahr Ngaujah, Kevin Mambo, Lillias White, Saycon Sengbloh

Previews began October 19, 2009
Eugene O’Neill Theater
230 West 49th Street

Rarely have Broadway musicals made audiences dance and think simultaneously, but Fela!, Bill T. Jones’ invigorating show about revolutionary/Afrobeat star Fela Aniklapo-Kuti, does just that.

One of the foremost practitioners of Afrobeat, Fela combined pulsating, rhythmic tunes with frank lyrics critiquing the corrupt government of Nigeria, his homeland, where he performed at his own club, The Shrine, in the capital city of Lagos. That’s where Fela! takes place—we are the audience at The Shrine in 1978, watching Fela’s final concert before he goes into self-exile with his family, fearing for their safety.

Mixing great music with incendiary politics, Fela! is a riveting, original portrait of an honorable man whose passion for music and his country led him to agitate against authority. There is no real plot, and we gradually learn the singer’s story from his infectious songs and from the ingenious ways Jones and co-book writer Jim Lewis weave information about Fela’s life into the show‘s fabric, like his heroic mother, Funmilayo, who gave her own life to help others overcome oppression. The musical culminates in a hallucinatory number between Fela and his mother that’s indescribably moving.

As we fall under Fela’s spell as a performer, it’s no great leap for us to share in his exhilaratingly-told story for 2-1/2 hours. The singer’s magnetism is brought vividly to life by the remarkable Sahr Ngaujah—but it’s a role that’s so physically draining that Ngaujah gives way to another actor, Kevin Mambo, at four performances a week. In the opening number, “Everything Scatter,” the charismatic Fela preaches, jokes, and proselytizes, then joins an extraordinary team of dancers and musicians (the terrific Brooklyn-based band, Antibalas, is onstage throughout) for the first of many musical climaxes that bring down the house.

Jones and his imaginative crew reinforce the show’s musical message with overwhelming lighting cues, stupendously creative costumes and an excellent use of projections (which flash everything from song lyrics to actual footage of Fela and his mother on the three walls surrounding the stage). They also cannily transform the theater into The Shrine.

Again, the nine female dancers couldn’t be bettered: this is one show whose gracefulness of movement is unequaled on Broadway. Lillias White (as his mother) and Saycon Sengbloh (as Sandra Isadore, the African-American who became Fela’s first wife) are memorable even if their roles could be fleshing out a bit more.

Unlike last season’s grossly overrated Passing Strange, Fela! fully and transcendently embraces the spirit of music as a vehicle for social, political and personal change.
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