Fela! (Broadway Play Review)

posted December 30, 2009 09:12:00 AM CST | 13 comments

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Fela! the musical is an outstanding introduction to anyone unfamiliar with the music and message of the great Nigerian musician/activist, Fela Kuti.  A heart-pounding, energetic mash-up of African dance, singing and live music conceived by Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis, the musical chronicles the life and times of the 20th century music pioneer while exploring the origins of Fela’s signature Afrobeat style: a blend of West African rhythms, Funk and Jazz mixed with thought-provoking political messages that challenged the corrupt Nigerian government of the 1970s.

The musical begins in Nigeria, at a sexy, mysterious club called the Shrine. Located in the Kalakuta compound where Fela Kuti (played convincingly by Sahr Ngaujah) lives, the Shrine is his sole performance space. It’s also the only place where one can experience the funky rhythms of Afrobeat played by his powerful band (portrayed by Brooklyn’s phenomenal Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra), accompanied by Fela’s unpredictable, candid commentary attacking the oppressive military government. But after repeated military harassment, violence and murder (intensified with his 78-year old mother Funmilayo, a respected womens’ rights activist, being thrown from a window and nearly killed), Fela has planned to give a farewell concert and depart from Nigeria for good.

Fela Kuti depicts his journey from boy to man throughout much of Act One, chronicling his musical inspirations (Frank Sinatra and James Brown), love affair with the black power movement in America as well his ambitions to become a “black president” and raise consciousness among oppressed people worldwide. His entire story is punctuated by thrilling, energetic dance numbers performed by sensual dancers who encourage audience participation. This is where the real fun begins, as infectious dance numbers like “The Clock/Originality” and “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense” combined with the throbbing, pulsating jazz funk of the Antibalas Orchestra are where the strength of this Broadway musical lie. Add Fela’s message-laden lectures peppered with his trademark arrogance and wit and you have an intoxicating combination that is hard to deny. Thankfully, moments like these make up much of this brilliant two-act musical, which feels more like a night at club Shrine instead of a Broadway performance.

Act Two takes on a sober mood, as Fela Kuti distresses over his mother’s death. Through ancient practices, he calls on her spirit and his ancestors for guidance. The beauty and mystery that surrounds African spiritual rituals is epitomized by the epic dance numbers “Iba Orisa/Shakara” and “Rain”. Both numbers perfectly accentuate the climatic power and force of the spiritual world, replete with elaborate, tribal costumes and intense lighting and sound effects that replicate a real-life, climatic thunderstorm.

While Fela! gives little insight regarding Fela Kuti as a person (his controversial views on marriage or his 1997 death from AIDS-related illness are not mentioned), its music, raw dance numbers and  fantastic stage performers are unlike anything that has ever been performed on Broadway, making it a must-see this season.

Fela! is an entertaining performance that will awaken your spirit while paying homage to one of the world’s most exciting entertainers and his timeless message of spiritual, political and social awareness.

Purchase Fela! Tickets

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