Both the greatest compliment as well as the kiss of death is to compare the new musical Fela! to the recent Broadway critical hit and commercial failure, Passing Strange. The two shows bear, you'll excuse the expression, a passing similarity, insofar as they're both about a musician of color who goes on a personal, geographical and musical journey to find his own unique sound. Both are also stories told by the character, himself, on stage. These are potent and obvious parallels. And we'll go one better: both shows are outside the boundaries of what we used to call traditional musical theater. They diverge, however, on one critical and material point: Passing Strange was about one man's musicand it stops right there. Fela! is about one man's music and how that music spoke toand formillions of people. One is personal story, the other is history. As history, transformed into musical theater by its principal architect Bill T. Jones (co-conceiver, co-book writer, choreographer, and director), Fela! is a kinetic pageant that is wonderful watch but for all of the horror and tragedy that is part of the story, it is also surprisingly unemotional.
Fela!, which opened last week at the 37 Arts, is based on the true story of the Nigerian composer, singer, political activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti who created the pulsating "Afro beat" that swept not only Africa, but much of the world. It takes place, ostensibly, during his farewell concert in 1977 before he leaves his homeland forever. Except, of course, we know that he never left Nigeria. Nonetheless, this concert becomes the vehicle by which Fela (brilliantly and charismatically played by Sahr Ngaujah) recalls for us his life story.
For many of us, our experience of African music comes filtered through Paul Simon or, for an earlier generation, Miriam Makeba. In both cases, the music has a folk purity. The surprise of Fela's Afro beat is how much it does not sound at all like what we associate with traditional African music. It is, instead, viscerally influenced by a variety of American sources, but at its most fundamental you can hear the jazz. In fact, Fela wails on a sax quite often during the show. To the production's credit, we can readily see how Fela, as a young man in Europe and America, came to appreciate this new music he was discovering and then, eventually, integrating it into the music of his homeland to create a new sound.
The early part of the show is engaging because we're watching the creation of a man and his music. Then comes the politics as Fela, very much a hero of the common man, clashes with the Nigerian government. His ego outstripping his power, Fela is doomed to suffer. His mother, who was clearly both a giant figure in Nigerian history and in his own mind's eye, was killed because of his opposition to the government. He was, himself, threatened and beaten, but never broken.
The play tells us these things, but they are expressed in a sort of multi-media fantasia that is both mesmerizing (even sometimes spectacular) but never emotionally compelling. The style of the show, led by Bill T. Jones' exciting choreography, overwhelms the content. The music and lyricsthe latter only understood thanks to the wise decision to supply super titlesmakes the pop/jazz of Stew in Passing Strange seem downright mainstream.
So, to compare Fela! to Passing Strange is to insure that it never goes to Broadway where the latter musical failed to find an audience. But, even without comparison to a commercial flop, Fela! will be a hard sell to the larger theatergoing public. It will take a brave producer, indeed, to risk this transfer.
Fela! at 37 Arts through September 21. For tickets and performance information , visit Ticketmaster.com.
The First Breeze of Summer features a terrific cast of actors
The kind of unraveling family saga we rarely see these days (August: Osage County aside), the revival of Leslie Lee's The First Breeze of Summer at the Signature Theatre is a richly textured tale of a black family's journey as seen through the life of its matriarch. The play unfolds as Leslie Uggams, known as Gremmar Edwards to her children and grandchildren, remembers her troubled younger self as she lives the last few days of her life. It's here, in these memories, that we see YaYa Dacosta as her younger self (played with delicate strength).
The flaws are in the character details, most notably in a climactic scene when a grandson of Gremmar Edwards storms into her room as she lies on her deathbed and verbally attacks and abuses her. Sorry, we don't buy that, not from this bright young kid. Nor did we believe there would be the equivalent of a church meeting in the their home; this scene rings false from the start right through to the finish. On the other hand, priceless are the scenes between a bold DaCosta trying to rope in a painfully shy John Earl Jelks playing a would-be preacher. In fact, many of the family scenes have the ring of truth about them, largely because everyone is acting out of multiple motives.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson's direction is lively and intense, while Karen Perry's costumes are picture perfect. The set design by Michael Carnahan nicely allows different eras in time to occupy the same space. Simply put, the play is good, but the acting is better. In fact, some of the acting is damned near perfect.
The First Breeze of Summer at Signature Theatre Company's Peter Norton Space through October 5. For tickets and performance information, visit www.signaturetheatre.org.