*Once “Fela!” starts, there’s no turning back.
Audience members should come prepared to strap themselves in for a high-octane experience that takes them on a musical and historical ride that is inspiring, informative and completely entertaining.
Currently playing at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on Broadway, “Fela!” is the true story of the legendary Nigerian musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, whose affecting Afrobeat rhythms is said to have sparked and reenergized a generation. Afrobeat is a mix of jazz, funk, highlife (a popular West African horn-based style) and traditional Yoruba music.
Determined and undeterred, Fela followed in the steps of his mother, herself a civil rights defender. Through his pulsating music he challenged a military government he deemed tyrannical and dishonest and garnered a loyal following in the process.
Inspired by his mother, Fela defied a corrupt and oppressive military government and devoted his life and music to freeing his people and restoring their human dignity.
Fela’s story is both provocative and controversial.
It’s the ’70s and Fela, arguably one of the hottest and most popular musicians in Africa at the time, has a club called The Shrine. Club attendees were privy to a new sound Fela dubbed Afrobeat, which was a pounding eclectic rhythm that was clearly infectious. It was mixed with what some called incendiary lyrics about the repressive military dictatorship that ruled Nigeria at the time. His music eventually found its way around the world, not surprisingly igniting a rather contentious relationship between the musician and the government.
Fearless of government reprisals, the iconic composer and performer wasn’t afraid to die for what he believed. He urged others to fight repression as he amassed a small army of his own and even surrounded his compound with electric wire.
An endearing, feared, reviled (by the government) and revered political and musical figure in African history, Fela’s story is not only told through music, but also some incredible dancing – choreographed by Tony-Award winner Bill T. Jones. Jones also conceived, directed and co-authored the book to the biographical musical.
Not an easy story to turn into a musical, the producers, directors and cast have essentially hit a home run.
This is a tough (in every sense of the word) show with an emotional subject matter, but the pay off is worth every drop of sweat and tears the actors exude.
The show moves from explaining Fela’s musical influences, to how he went about creating his unique sound. Honing his craft in New York, London and Los Angeles, Fela inhaled and digested the Black Power movement in America through a woman named Sandra Isadore who opened his mind to the writings of civil rights icons Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
Fela’s spiritual and philosophical transformation was palatable.
The show, produced by Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and Will & Jada Pinkett Smith, is driven not only by the music and the choreography, but also by some powerful performances.
Kevin Mambo, who shares portraying the title role with Sahr Ngaujah, (who was recently nominated for a Tony Award for his performance), is stunningly brilliant and engaging. He draws the audience in with an authentic presence that fills the stage. His magnetic personality paired with his robust performance effectively carries the show from beginning to end.
Lillias White is equally impressive, portraying Fela’s fearless and unwavering mother, Funmilayo. She gives a bold, yet subtle performance that is awesome and gut-wrenching.
There is no weak link in this show, making Fela! a satisfying theatrical experience.
The dancers, with their enviable firm, elongated and beautifully cut bodies, are full of inexhaustible energy. Like free spirited gazelles they move about the stage pushing the story forward with their technically precise, yet free-styled gyrations.
The efficient and splendid set design, mood lighting and costumes assist in making this show a full package.
And, the music, of course, is exceptional!
Kudos to everyone involved.
“Fela!” is more than a play. It’s more than a musical. It’s an experience!
The Broadway musical, which just grabbed 11 Tony Award nominations including Best Musical, is set to launch a nationwide tour in addition to its scheduled European premiere in the fall.
Other Tony nominations include Best Book of a Musical (Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones), Best Actor (Sahr Nguajah), Best Featured Actress (Lillias White), Best Choreography (Jones), Best Direction (Jones), Best Orchestrations (Aaron Johnson), Best Scenic Design (Marina Draghici), Best Costume Design (Marina Draghici), Best Lighting Design (Robert Wierzel) and Best Sound Design (Robert Kaplowitz).
The musical opened on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Nov. 23, 2009, after an acclaimed run Off-Broadway in 2008.
“Fela!” stars Mambo, White, Saycon Sengbloh, Ismael Kouyate, Gelan Lambert, Talu Green, Corey Baker, Hettie Barnhill, Nicole Chantal De Weever, Lauren DeVeaux, Elasea Douglas, Rujeko Dubutshena, Catherine Foster, Shaneeka Harrell, Abena Koomson, Shakira Marshall, Afi McClendon, Adesola Osakalumi, Jeffrey Page, Daniel Soto, Iris Wilson, Aimee Graham Wodobode, Chanon Judson, Farai M. Malianga, Ryan H. Rankine, Jill M. Vallery and J.S. Williams.
Fela!, directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones with a book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, and music and lyrics by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
Fela!, Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49th St.,
New York, plays Tuesday at 7 p.m., Wednesday-Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. There is no performance on Sunday evening, June 13.
On the Donloe Scale, D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likable), O (OK) and E (excellent), “Fela” gets an E (Excellent).
Darlene Donloe is an entertainment journalist based in Southern California. Contact her at [email protected].