Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 23, 2009
Fela! 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. Directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones. Scenic & Costume Designer Marina Draghici. Lighting Designer Robert Wierzel. Sound Designer Robert Kaplowitz. Projection Designer Peter Nigrini. Wig, Hair & Makeup Designer Cookie Jordan. Music Consultant Antibalas. Cast: Sahr Ngaujah, Kevin Mambo, Saycon Sengbloh, Core Baker, Hettie Vyrine Barnhill, Lauren de Veaux, Nicole Chanel de Weever, Elasea Douglas, Rujeko Dumbutshena, Catherine Foster, Rasaan-Elijah “Talu” Green, Shaneeka Harrell, Chanon Judson, Abena Koomson, Ismael Kouyaté, Gelan Lambert, Farai Malianga, Shakire Marshall, Afi McClendon, Adesola Osakalumi, Jeffrey Page, Daniel Soto, Jill M. Vallery, Iris Wilson, J.L. Williams, Aimee Graham Wodobode, and Lillias White.
None of the show’s celebratory verve has been sacrificed in the move (slightly) uptown, where Fela presides over his 1978 farewell concert in Lagos at The Shrine, the club where his unrest-fomenting fusion music (which marries “the highlife to the cool to the jazz,” as he explains) has held court for years. The military’s outside, just waiting for any excuse to break in and break things up - which gives Fela all the excuse he needs to break down his signature style (for us) and break out of the last boundary standing in his way of popular canonization. As Fela swivels, thrusts, and blares - on both trumpet and saxophone - through his fiery finale, the onstage band (led by Aaron Johnson and comprising members of the Brooklyn Afrobeat band Antibalas) and his go-everywhere-including-the-house dancers keep adding new kindling.
Director-choreographer Jones, who won a Tony for his dances in Spring Awakening but finds a much surer outlet here, has injected everyone with pure caffeine plasma. He inspires them to kick, shake, slither, and strut through Fela’s songs, which are explosive only insofar as they state what the ruling class doesn’t want to hear: mainly criticisms of the corruption that’s caused intense poverty and treats ordinary people as criminals. (Sound familiar?) The songs are charged, yes, but you can still derive copious thrills by absorbing them simply as insinuating, pounding music. To the characters onstage, however, Fela’s music is the rhythmic rumble of freedom.
That our ears can’t discern the distinction is the only disappointment that’s crept into the main-stem version of the show - but it’s a big one. Off-Broadway, Fela! played like a protest rally that didn’t want to pretend to be a musical; now it plays more like a musical that barely wants to be a protest rally. Jones and colibrettist Lewis have done impressive work remedying the earlier version’s overlength and lack of narrative life by stripping away a good 15-20 minutes and all but the most overt of the coordinating context. But in doing so, they’ve also watered down the show’s independent spirit enough that you may find yourself forgetting that there’s a reason Fela is singing himself to imprisonment.
Take the fierceness out of the man, and there’s not much left except a marathon of a role - Fela is hardly ever offstage - that’s now denied its deepest emotional payoff. Tone down the rabble-rousing specter of his mother and inspiration, Funmilayo, and you have a one-two punch of deflation. That’s also happened, due to some questionable recasting: Talented as she is, Lillias White is too mainstream and predictable a voice to convince as the otherworldly woman behind this world-changing man.
One assumes these were practical choices, instituted to make Fela! more palatable to broader audiences who may want to see a star, but neither know nor care who Anikulapo-Kuti was, what his music was like, or what he spent his life battling against. But the same philosophy has also seeped into the rest of the production, making safe, slick, and smooth what used to be coarser and densely realistic.
Luckily, there’s no similar problem to be found with the performances, which aside from White are hard-core theatrical fusion. The role of Fela is split between Kevin Mambo and Sahr Ngaujah, the latter of whom originated the role Off-Broadway and whom I also saw this time around. He really is terrific, a passionate and energetic emcee for the last night of Fela’s particular world, and a tireless singer and dancer whose body and voice both carry the caffeinated weariness of a man whose entire life is one big fight. Saycon Sengbloh is vividly muse-like as Fela’s most potent love, Sandra Isadore, and Gelan Lambert has a highly memorable African-tap solo or two.
Then there are Anikulapo-Kuti’s songs, which treat everything from governmental conspiracy and petroleum problems to the eternality of water and zombies as metaphor for unchecked militarism. These aren’t the 20- and 30-minute-long protest statements that made him famous - they’ve been cut down, rejiggered a bit, and polished to keen theatrical effect. You never feel, as you probably should, that you’re under constant attack, but you’re swept away nonetheless by the force and energy with which they’re presented, something most Broadway musicals of recent vintage (except last year’s Passing Strange) haven’t easily accomplished.
It’s just that when “Kere Kay” hits - it's used as the finale for both acts - it's treated as an all-purpose wrap-up moment that builds to a barking, two-armed “black power” salute. The song as implemented here demands revolution without ever actually having to earn it. It’s a fitting symbol for Fela!, even if it doesn’t do justice to the man the show is about, who dreamed of bringing justice to everyone.