September 6, 2008

Saying Yeah, Yeah to "Fela!"

Perhaps the biggest compliment you can pay an actor is to say—and mean it—that you can’t imagine anyone else in the role he or she is playing. Well I’m definitely saying that about Sahr Ngaujah, the charismatic and prodigiously talented star of the new musical Fela! that opened this week at the 37 Arts Theatre.

Ngaujah sings and dances with dervish intensity, nails all the jokes and drives home every dramatic moment. He also narrates the entire show (no one else has any lines) and seems to play almost every instrument in the band. Or if he’s only sidelining (which is what my musician husband K tells me is the term used to describe instrumental lip syncing) then he’s damn good at that too. Good enough that he alone makes Fela! worth the move to Broadway that the musical’s producers, who have reportedly invested some $1 million in the production, are clearly hoping it will make.

Fela! isn’t conventional Broadway material. It tells the complex story of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the Nigerian pop musician and political activist who challenged his country’s corrupt and repressive leaders. But a show about Fela always had one big thing going for it: the music. For Fela! is the world music equivalent of a jukebox musical and it’s filled with the intoxicating blend of jazz, funk and traditional African rhythms that form Afrobeat, the exuberant musical genre that Fela helped to create. It’s almost impossible to sit still while you’re listening to it. And in this production, you don’t have to. At times during the nearly three-hour show, Ngaujah invites the audience to stand up and dance and even offers instruction in how to do a few movements.

All the movements are created by the acclaimed modern dance choreographer Bill T. Jones, who deservedly won a Tony for his first Broadway show, Spring Awakening. This time out, Jones not only choreographed the hyperkinetic routines in Fela! but directed the show and co-wrote it along with Jim Lewis. And at the performance my sister Joanne and I attended, he also sat in the back row and led the cheers for the show. Jones is a phenomenally talented guy but he may be wearing too many hats here because the book could use a more experienced hand.

Granted, it has to cover a lot of material. Fela! tries to do it by presenting itself as a farewell performance that Fela is giving at his nightclub the Shrine in 1978, shortly after government thugs have killed his mother by throwing the 77-year year old woman (herself an ardent activist and feminist) out of a window. In between numbers, he tells the audience the story of his life—including his middle class upbringing, his student days in London, his discovery of the black power movement in the U.S., and the creation of the new musical form that fused his experiences into a sound that spread across Africa and won fans in Europe and the avant-garde corners of America too. Fela was talented and arrogant, defiantly controversial and ostentatiously sexual (he once married 27 women in one wedding ceremony). Although repeatedly persecuted by the government, he never left Nigeria and died there from AIDS complications in 1997.

The pre-opening publicity seemed eager to compare Fela! to last season’s cult hit Passing Strange, in which a narrator told the story of another young black man (this one a middle-class American) in a musical idiom (this time rock) not often heard on Broadway. But
Fela! reminded me more of Paul Simon’s musical The Capeman, an innovative work by a heavyweight talent, filled with great music and slapdash storytelling.

Fela!, however, is loads more fun than The Capeman ever was. The entire theater at 37 Arts is decorated with folk-art murals evoking the Lagos of the ‘60s and ‘70s when Fela was at the height of his popularity. Video projections help tell his story and provide subtitles for the lyrics to his songs. The Brooklyn-based musical collective Antibalas, which specializes in Afrobeat, fills in for Fela’s band, playing almost non-stop—and terrifically—from the moment the audience enters until it exits. And the ensemble of well-buffed and seeming tireless dancers perform one dazzling—and often gravity-defying—dance number after another. (Click here to see an excerpt.)

It all adds up to an exhilarating and unexpectedly life-affirming experience. The show deserves to transfer to Broadway. But in case it doesn’t and you can’t get a seat to the current run which is scheduled to end on Sept. 21, then you might wander down to the subway stop at 42nd and 8th Avenue after the show. My husband K, who catches the train there after playing in Gypsy, reports that the Fela! cast members literally dance into the station each night and continue the merrymaking as they wait for trains to take them home.


Anonymous said...

I am seeing this on Saturday night (the 13th) I am so looking forward to it...more so after reading your thoughts! I'll have my review on my blog....which uses the same look as yours!

(PS...I TOTALLY agree with your reveiw of H2....and I didn't want to write about it either!)

Anonymous said...

Great review. Great site. I just subscribed. You and Lacayo are on my Safari homepage.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Anita, belated thanks for commenting and I hope you had a great time at the show. And Ken, welcome to B&Me and many thanks for subscribing. I hope you'll continue to enjoy it and that you'll get a chance to see some of the shows as well. Cheers, jan