Theatre: Eugene O'Neill Theatre
Photo from The New York Times.
David and Dan both saw Fela!, the new Broadway musical about the life of Nigerian activist Fela Kuti. And they both had a lot to say about it. Here is their takeaway from the production…
DAVID'S BOTTOM LINE: An ambitious hybrid of concert, happening, history lecture, African dance and narrative, Fela! introduces us to a fascinating and important character out of modern history. There might be some things to quibble about in the show (2 hrs 40 minutes? Really?), but it will send you running to buy some hot afrobeat on iTunes.
DAN'S BOTTOM LINE: While I REALLY wanted to like this show (and I’m glad it is playing on Broadway), I was often bored - I felt the music got repetitive, and the “story” was too general to be interesting.
DAVID: As the hot, hot onstage band gets the audience bobbing heads and slapping thighs with their Afrobeat rhythm, a line of undulating African dancers escorts one Fela Anikulapo-Kuti through the house. The normally staid Eugene O’Neill Theater is today decked out in the corrugated tin and wild paint of the Shrine – Fela’s dance club/revolutionary hub in the dirtier part of Lagos, Nigeria in the 1970’s. Arms raised in a double-fisted salute, pelvis thrust forward with attitude, this Fela is clearly someone with power and grace and a heaping plateful of style. Onstage, Fela stalks the crowd, seducing us into offering a rousing chorus of gutteral “Yea yea's.” Surrounded by the stunning physicality and beauty of a troupe of African dancers, Fela has us from the start, and where the evening goes is really up to him – just like it must have been in those heady black power days of the 70's.
This is sexy stuff – no doubt. If Fela is this powerful and charismatic in the Broadway retelling of his life, imagine what he was like in person. That’s some serious mojo. But like Fela himself, the evening is not just about grinding your hips, smoking some igbo, and escaping. No, Fela, the man and the show, has a serious political point to make. In his life, Fela aggressively advanced freedom and reform in Nigerian politics through 70 albums of music in his original style – afrobeat.
The show loosely presents his life story, from a privileged upbringing in the Nigerian elite (his mother was a prominent feminist and his father a minister), to his schooling in London (where he took the money his parents gave him to go to medical school and instead enrolled to study jazz), to his political education in the United States at the hands of his first wife (who gave him the writings of Marx, Malcom X, Stokey Carmichael and a host of others) and then back to Nigeria, where he used his fame to become a Bob Marley-style revolutionary. Over the course of the next 25 years, Fela was arrested by the corrupt Nigerian military junta over 200 times, was beaten and tortured, saw his revolutionary compound, the Independent Nation of Kakaluata, burned and his 82-year old mother thrown off the balcony to her death by soldiers. But he never left Nigeria. He gave up a sure-fire career as an international pop and rock star to stay and fight for his beliefs and his people, until his death in 1997 of AIDS.
If that sounds like a huge plateful of stuff to digest while you try to rock out to the infectious rhythms of Fela’s music (muscularly recreated by a 10-piece band under the direction of Aaron Johnston), well, you’re right. It is, and you probably won’t get it all without an internet connection direct to Wikipedia. But you will have a good time.
It was a great concert, with amazing production values and ingenuity, fantastic central performances, and great dancers. But - since you can't get up and dance (or drink and smoke) as would be appropriate, its a bit claustrophobic towards the end. Less 30 minutes and its amazing.
DAN: I saw this show off-Broadway, and came out feeling that it was a bit long, and extremely repetitive. Even though it is now at least twenty minutes shorter, it still feels long and repetitive. And I hate saying this! This is a daring show for Broadway, considering the Afrobeat music and the strong political views. And for these reasons, I want Fela! to be amazing. But no matter how much I want that, it just isn’t.
Personally, while I think cutting another 20-30 minutes, and even making it a one-act musical, would help, I don’t think length is the main problem. Fela! needs a better book. Without a central conflict, or specific situations in which characters interact with each other, the show is essentially just a concert/political rally/beginning Afrobeat lesson. The musical Fela! is framed as the final concert Fela will give at “the Shrine,” a Nigerian club which is described in detail in the program notes. And during this concert, Fela talks about his life, and his music, and his mother (now dead). And other than learning (all within the first fifteen minutes) that Fela enjoys women and Afrobeat music, is sad that his mother is dead, and does not like the corrupt Nigerian dictatorship, we don’t get to learn all that much about Fela Kuti’s life. (Seriously, the Wikipedia entry is more informative!)
Nor do we learn how Fela actually feels about much at all. Another way of describing Fela!
might be as a one person show with a chorus and some guests. But even in one person shows, the main character has some inner conflict. The only conflict in Fela!
is the generic conflict hinted at between Fela Kuti (and his fellow activists) and the Nigerian government. But since we don’t really learn about this conflict, we can’t engage with it.
DAVID: There is also an expectation issue – if you go in looking for a narrative through-line about Fela Anikulapo-Kuti told through his music, you’ll miss out on the beautifully designed and choreographed theatrical happening that Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis have created. It’s not your classic Broadway show – even less so than Rent or Spring Awakening – it has more in common with Bring In Da’ Noise/Bring In Da’ Funk, which also received criticisms for its lack of straightforward story. That said, within the structure they’ve created, the second act does ask for a level of emotional investment that they didn’t quite earn in the first act.
DAN: I agree with you about the concert thing, but I was trying to figure out why the concert aspect didn't work- you're totally right- it was because you couldn't get up and move around a bit. I was thinking that many people might actually be pleasantly surprised to walk into a Broadway musical and find themselves in a concert; many might actually prefer it. But unlike something like Rock of Ages, Fela is still much more a Broadway musical than a successful hybrid.
On the other hand, I LOVE Lillias White, and her number in Act 2 might be the best reason to go (and definitely why you shouldn't leave during intermission). Saycon Sengbloh is also excellent. But this is really Fela's show. I saw the other Fela perform off-Broadway (Sahr Ngaujah), and while the two actors give different performances, both are excellent, and audiences who see Kevin Mambo shouldn't feel like they are getting the lesser one. (Personally, I think I liked Kevin Mambo more). Choreography is excellent, although like everything else, it would have had more impact if there was less of it.
I did like her [White] as well – though I am a bit tired of the “big black momma sings” element of second act production numbers. But if you are gonna do it, there are few better than Ms. White. Her big number was a place where the show could have tied it all together, where we see Fela appeal to the spirit of his dead mother for permission to leave Nigeria only to have her tell him that he must stay and fight. Standing in front of an affecting collage of coffins, a truly teary-eyed Fela (Kevin Mambo in the performance I saw) asks “Who are you willing to bury for your beliefs?” It’s strong narrative stuff, but by the time it happens, the athletic dancing, stunning projections, pounding beat and lengthy dance breaks have kind of taken your attention away from the most important thing – that Fela was a heroic man who fought for what he believed in right until the moment of his death.
See what you think by checking out Fela! on Broadway, playing now at The Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 230 West 49th Street.
(Performances are Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays at 2pm and 8pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $59-$127 and are available at telecharge.com
or by calling 800.432.7250. For more show info visit felaonbroadway.com