Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - July 12, 2012
Fela! A Broadway/National Theatre of London Production. Book by Jim Lewis & Bill T. Jones. Music and lyrics by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Additional lyrics by Jim Lewis. Additional music by Aaron Johnson & Jordan McLean. Based on the life of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Conceived by Bill T. Jones, Jim Lewis & Stephen Hendel. Inspired by The Authorized Biography Fela: This Bitch of a Live by Carlos Moore. Directed and Choreographed by Bill T. Jones. Scenic & costume design by Marina Draghici. Lighting design by Robert Wierzel. Sound desig by Robert Kaplowitz. Projection design by Peter Nigrini. Wig, hair & makeup design by Cookie Jordan. Cast: Sarh Ngaujah, Adesola Osakalumi, Paulette Ivory, Rasaan-Elijah "Talu" Green, Ismael Kouyate, Gelan Lambert, Sherinne Kayra Anderson, Jonathan Andre, Cindy Belliot, Nandi Bhebhe, Catia Mota da Cruz, Nicole Chantal de Weever, Jacqui DoBois, Poundo Gomis, Wanjiru Kamuyu, Shakira Marshall, Jeffrey Page, Oneika Phillips, Thierry Picaut, Duain Richmond, Jermaine Rowe, Dnaiel Soto, Adé Chiké Torbert, Jill Marie Vallery, Iris Wilson, Aimee Graham Woodbode And Melanie Marshall.
Such troubles, it should be noted, are not necessarily the show's fault. This explosive recreation of Nigerian musical-political rabble-rouser Fela Anikulapo-Kuti's last night at The Shrine, the Lagos nightclub he considered his personal protectorate, still functions on its most elemental kinetic levels. Director-choreographer Bill T. Jones, who conceived and wrote the free-form biographical story with Jim Lewis based on Anikulapo-Kuti's distinctive Afrobeat music, has, through the fusion of traditional movement with advanced modern forms of physical expression, maintained the proper energy of a social conflagration masquerading as a steroid-studded cabaret.
As the final concert, held in the late 1970s, unfolds, the jittery, angry verve of Anikulapo-Kuti and his musicians and dancers, reaches the orgasmic pitch that suggests, against all odds, lasting change is nothing more than a pelvic thrust away. Through some two dozen of Anikulapo-Kuti's songs (many of which have been reduced from their original marathon lengths to merely a few minutes), for which Lewis has penned additional lyrics and Jordan McLean and musical director Aaron Johnson (also responsible for the exciting orchestrations) have expanded with a new musical ideas of their own, you can only interpret the party you're witnessing as the outraged cry of a people for whom freedom is more than a word — the pursuit of it forms the backbone of their calculated, caffeinated existence.
This Fela!, however, must contend with forces even fiercer than the draconian Nigerian government that endlessly persecutes the titular figure. When the musical premiered Off-Broadway in 2008, and moved to the Main Stem the following year, it was in a suffocatingly environmental production that strove to not just immerse you but catapult you onstage, demanding you confront the cries of those who were trying to blast off the roof of both the established power structure and the building in which they were appearing. (In short, they were occupying before the word had achieved quite the connotation it now has in America.) This version of the show, simply put, can't do that — and doesn't really try.
It's understandable, of course, from the standpoint that this is a world tour that just happens to have found a Broadway berth for four weeks; it can't completely transform any old performance venue into The Shrine the way a sit-down mounting can. But this innate inability has led to an evening that's more conventional and less effective than what New York audiences had previously been exposed to. Even when projections (by Peter Nigrini) bleed onto the walls and the performers spill into the house, it's as if by accident; you're constantly aware the reality unfolding is artificial and not one that can (and should) rock you to your core. Without that feeling, there's barely enough to the show for it to qualify as cohesive drama in any recognizable sense. The sets and costumes (Marina Draghici) and lights (Robert Wierzel) become less expressions of tribal Yoruba individuality given blazing contemporary form than representatives of a culture that's already lost the battle over its own identity.
What driving spirit truly remains emanates solely from the actor playing the title character. Originator Sahr Ngaujah alternates with Adesola Osakalumi. I saw the latter this time around; he reads as a younger, more calculating Fela who hangs on to at least a thread of optimism, and establishes a more charged and intimate relationship with the audience than Ngaujah did his first two times doing the role here. Osakalumi is slightly less magnetic at bridging the narrative's anger and action, but is more personable and traditionally likeable — provided Ngaujah has not let his performance slip, you're in for a satisfying portrayal regardless of which actor you see.
The supporting cast is less sound. Tap artist Gelan Lambert returns as a sparkling dance soloist, but the chief women in Fela's life, Melanie Marshall as his even more explosive mother Funmilayo and Paulette Ivory as his muse Sandra Isadore, are polished and mannered to a fault. You must see, particularly when fantasy and fact become indistinguishable in Act II, the impact they both had on Fela's own view of himself and his approach in waging war against his oppressors, and you don't get that. As with everything else here, you get a receive a decent approximation but not the conflagration you're constantly being promised.
Still, these are concerns of sharpest interest to New Yorkers who've already experienced Fela! — they simply prove there's no compelling reason to go back to it again. If you somehow missed the show on its first two Manhattan appearances, this version is good enough to warrant a first look and a listen. The voice it chronicles is unique and worthy, even if the shell surrounding it too often carries but a fraction of its potential power to electrify.