Monday, March 15, 2010

The Great Black Way - Fela! - Musical Review

Fela! - Eugene O'Neill Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics based on the songs by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Book and Additional Lyrics by Jim Lewis, Directed and Choreographed by Bill T. Jones

Once again the Eugene O'Neill Theatre has been decked out and transformed for a new show. Last time I was there, it was 1890's Germany via geometrical shaped fluorescents and hanging blue lights, and now it's The Shrine, a nightclub in Lagos, Nigeria circa 1978, where singer-songwriter Fela Kuti played nightly with lyrics that criticized the corruption and the military dictatorship within the Nigerian government. But don't worry about all that heavy stuff, most of it doesn't bog the hyper-energy show until the second act.

Conceived by Jim Lewis, Bill T. Jones (Tony winning choreographer for Spring Awakening, Chapel/Chapter), and Steve Hendel, the show is less a full storied musical than it is a riotous Afrobeat concert by and about Fela Kutiand the first act is an absolute blast of energy and excitement as the cast of dancers and musicians shake and sway and jump and dance non-stop in an introduction to Afrobeat via Kuti himself (played in rotation by Sahr Ngaujah (shown in the photos here) and Kevin Mambo. I saw it with Mambo playing Fela).

Saycon Sengbloh (Hair, Wicked) plays Fela's main wife (or something like that, sometimes the heavy accents were hard to decipher) and while she gets a lead role and is lovely here, I felt she had more of a presence in her little character bits in Hair.

And man, it's really NON-STOP that i started sweating for the dancers moving to Bill T. Jones choreography with even a portion that turns into a dance lesson for the audience (yes, you're gonna get up and shake your booty)! There's a slight introduction to Fela's many wives (the dancers), and his dead mother (usually Lilias White but she was out for my show) seen in a ghostly vision, but the 1st act is really about the energy and Mambo was the excellent leader and host to the non-stop action.

While Fela! has been heralded as something completely new like nothing seen on Broadway, I guess I still found it to be a bit like it's former tenant, but the "Black" version of Spring Awakening, at least in spirit. It also reminded me of two other "Black musicals", the Jamaican based The Harder They Come (yes I know Jamaica and Africa are two very different things but the beats are all kinda the same to me after a while) and the South African based musical review Umoja, and especially like the later one, Fela! has a thread of a storyline, lots of amazing dancing and African beats, but Fela has a similar feel (or maybe it's just all "Black" to me?), but seems to hold the energy together better than the others.

At least until Act 2, when the show tries to get serious and drains all the energy that makes the show so special in the first place. I know Fela Kuti's life is tragic with the loss of his mother and his constant fight with the corruption around his land, but the drastic tonal changes and attempt to deepen the story don't really work in the shows overall favour.

The final grade reflects the 5 stars I would have given Act 1, and the 2 stars I would give Act 2. Usually I would prefer the darker tones in a show and I would love the serious notions within all the excitement, but I just wasn't feeling it and I felt it all didn't gel together as one whole show, which is really too bad since Fela! gets to a terrific start.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

1 comment:

Megan said...

Thanks for the review - I've been debating whether to see Fela! on my next trip up.

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