Sahr Ngaujah as Fela Kuti and the Broadway cast of FELA!
Photo: Monique Carboni
In early November, chief bumpershine theatre critic Robert Jaimes and I attended a preview on FELA! on Broadway, here’s his review:
FELA! A Review by Robert Jaimes
In celebrating the music of Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, FELA! is, at times, downright hypnotic. With its driving beats, raw and often-politically-infused lyrics, FELA! immediately promises the audience something different in the way of a Broadway theatrical experience. Different it delivers. FELA! falls somewhat short, however, when the story drifts away from the unique concert experience that FELA! originally promises.
Upon entering the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, the audience is transported to “The Shrine,” which, according to the program note, “is in one of the most dangerous parts of the city, and between the thousands trying to get in and the Army trying to keep you away, it’s no easy task. Best to show up before 11 PM.” (The good news is, thanks to advance ticket sales and assigned seating in this Times Square Disneyfication era, I experienced neither dodgy Black Friday-like mobs clamoring to get in, nor NYPD’s finest militia barricading my entrance into the theatre. I do recommend, however, arriving a tad earlier than the program note recommends”” no later than 8 PM for evening shows”” so as not to avoid missing the show altogether.)
Almost immediately, we are treated to “B.I.D. (Breaking It Down),” a series of songs designed to provide a lively and interactive education in the music of Fela Kuti and the genre of Afrobeat. For those unfamiliar with this musical style, Afrobeat can be described as a symphony of raw, tribal rhythms, infused with jazz. Fela’s caustic lyrics tell it like it is in corrupt 1970s Nigeria, they are often urgent, often playful, and never apologetic. Combined, the music and lyrics can accuse, inspire, compel and amuse.
Led by the remarkable Sahr Ngaujah in the title role [Kevin Mambo also plays the lead twice a week], the FELA! cast embraces Afrobeat with every ounce of their immensely talented beings. With the help of Brooklyn’s Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, their mastery and expression of Fela’s music is mesmerizing. Standout performances include “Everything Scatter,” “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense,” “Expensive Shit” and “Zombie.”
Neither the choreography of Bill T. Jones nor of his talented dancers ever misstep. In some of the more uplifting moments in FELA!, traditional tribal-like dances are brought alive with such joy, spontaneity, child-like abandonment and down-and-dirty sexuality. The dancers’ spirits are infectious. Jones has infused into heart-pounding, primitive African dance such eclectic dance styles as Bollywood, jitterbug, swing, latin beat, as well as military and tap, making FELA! ethnocentric and universal, foreign and recognizable, all at once.
Those not familiar with Afrobeat or Nigerian accents, fear not, at least for part of the show. Director/Choreographer Bill T. Jones has adeptly employed multi-media elements”” supertitles and vintage footage”” to assist the untrained ear and tell Fela’s story.
Despite its excellent music and dancing, I had some difficulties with the story in FELA!. The narrative interrupts; it transported me away from The Shrine that Bill T. Jones and the rest of his design staff and cast and crew so successfully created at the top of the show. Although the real-life history of Fela Kuti can pack an emotional wallop, particularly the brutal military raid on Fela’s compound depicted in Act Two, I often felt imposed upon and at times confused. A dream sequence between Fela and his mother, Funmilayo Kuti, also particularly missed the mark, with the set evoking a white netherworld, a Roosevelt Island tram and an aluminum Christmas tree. Enough said? As terrific as Broadway veteran Lillias White is as Funmilayo, I wanted Fela to wake up right away. – RJ
While I basically agree with Robert’s assessment, (though I might have added that FELA’s lighting was also excellent), I really think that fans of Fela Kuti, fans of Afrobeat, and music fans in general will find this show tremendously entertaining. Sahr Nguajah was truly a tour de force in the lead role— he dances, acts, conducts, and plays sax, all with exceptional prowess and seemingly boundless energy. Aside from Mr. Nguajah, the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra delivers a finely honed performance and the chorus of dancers are as talented as they are magnetic. In short, there is really nothing like Fela! on Broadway right now and I really hope it finds the audience it deserves— hopefully the addition of Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith as executive producers will help out in that respect. To those of you who usually prefer the dark confines of a Lower East Side club over the blinding lights of Times Square, I encourage you to head on up to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre for a change of pace, I think you’ll be glad you did.
Now here’s the best part, I’ve got a pair of tickets to give away to FELA! on Broadway valid for a variety of performances in December 2009 and January 2010. In order to win tickets, please fill out the entry form after the jump, US residents (locals only please), must be 18 or older. This contest ends on December 11, 2009. If you’re not the winner, don’t despair though, you can still purchase tickets to FELA! on Broadway via Telecharge, use code FEBBX67 or FEBX817 for substantial savings.
One last thing, this recent interest in Fela has sparked a couple of interesting side projects, nearly four dozen Fela albums are being reissued on Knitting Factory Records in the US starting in 2010 (a 2 CD “Best of the Black President” compilation is out now), Focus Features has announced that they are developing a feature film based on the life of Fela, and finally Brooklyn’s own Antibalas has started a Thursday night residency at the Knitting Factory Brooklyn from now until January 28th, 2010.
UPDATE: Watch for the cast of FELA! on The Colbert Report tonight (Dec 7).
Contest entry form, more information on the Fela Kuti reissues and Antibalas residency after the jump.
PS See Ben Brantley‘s rave review over here.
Fela Kuti Album Reissue Schedule
Fela Kuti – “Koola Lobitos / The “˜69 Los Angeles Sessions” (02/02/10) Knitting Factory
Fela Kuti – “Live with Ginger Baker” (02/02/10) Knitting Factory
Fela Kuti – “Shakara / London Scene” (02/02/10) Knitting Factory
Fela Kuti – “Roforofo Fight / The Fela Singles” (02/02/10) Knitting Factory
Fela Kuti – “Open & Close / Afrodisiac” (02/02/10) Knitting Factory
Fela Kuti – “Confusion / Gentleman” (02/02/10) Knitting Factory
Antibalas Residency at The Knitting Factory (Brooklyn, NY)
Every Thursday from December 3rd thru January 28th
After dedicating the last three years providing the musical foundation and pulse for the latest off- and on-Broadway sensation, Fela!, Antibalas brings the party back to its Brooklyn roots for a weekly residency at the Knitting Factory. The concerts promise to hearken back to Antibalas legendary Africalia! dance parties at Tribecas now-defunct No Moore club, and further cement the band’s reputation as an unstoppable live music juggernaut. From the New York Post (“What really makes the show work is the music, fabulously delivered by Antibalas”), to the New York Times (“As played by the Brooklyn band Antibalas, this is music that gets into your bloodstream”), Antibalas’ reputation has quickly become headline news.
Disclaimer: The producers of FELA! provided me with tickets to this show for review, promotion and giveaway. However, regular readers probably recall that I expressed interest in this show long before I was ever contacted by its PR team.