The Late Fela Kuti Hits Broadway
November 25, 2009NEW YORK (AP) -- Fela Anikulapo-Kuti seems an unlikely subject for the star of a Broadway musical. He was a most scrappy fella, internationally famed Nigerian musician and combative political activist.
Tony-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones has shaped a stirring production around Kuti's outsize personality and key events from his rebellious, unconventional life, set to the percussive Afrobeat music Kuti invented. The result is “Fela!,” a terrific dance party of a musical, an exuberant celebration that also drives home a spirited message of human resilience.
Jones co-wrote the book with Jim Lewis and directs the play, which he co-conceived with Stephen Hendel and Lewis, like a kaleidoscope of sight and sound and motion.
The Eugene O'Neill Theatre has been transformed into the interior of Fela Kuti's Lagos nightclub, “The Shrine,” for a 1977 concert, when Fela has decided to leave Nigeria to protect his family. The audience is immediately immersed in the underground atmosphere, as the set and projections extend out into the theater. The performers frequently dance through the aisles, filling the theater the same way the lively music does.
An extremely talented ensemble of attractive, limber, athletic dancers are in nonstop motion throughout the play. The infectious onstage band, heavy on horns and drums and conducted by Aaron Johnson, includes members of Antibalas, a group that began studying Fela Kuti's music a decade ago.
Sahr Ngaujah, who originated the role of Fela Kuti in the successful off-Broadway production last year at Arts 37, now shares the rigorous role with Kevin Mambo.
Onstage nearly the entire show, Ngaujah gives a beguiling, swaggering, sweaty portrayal of Fela, conveying the hedonistic attitude of a popular musician who constantly speaks out against the various dictatorial regimes in his country. His more provocative songs include “Zombie,” which portrays the military rulers as mindless robots, and “Pipeline/ITT, (International Thief Thief,”) which rails against the looting of his country's oil and diamond wealth by multinational corporations.
Fela's persistent messages of human rights, anti-corruption and individual empowerment are conveyed through his direct, often-satirical lyrics and the monologue of this nightclub act. Humor alternates with serious matters, though, as the audience is requested at one point to get up and follow Fela's directions to really move their hips (“The Clock.”)
Fela describes his early musical influences in an amusing number called “BID (Breaking It Down),” that includes Frank Sinatra, James Brown, his own grandfather's spiritual hymns, jazz fusion and Yoruban chants.
Video projections of headlines and old newsreels accompany Nguajah's performance, showing that Fela Kuti was often arrested and beaten, alongside news of his increasing popular acclaim. A seminal incident in which vicious police raided his compound, brutalized his family and staff, and fatally injured his mother, is depicted in the production as a turning point in Fela's life, causing him to doubt his life's passion for justice.
To soften the underlying violence and Kuti's complicated, raunchy, chauvinistic edges for a Broadway audience, two real women from Kuti's life are given expanded roles in the musical. The character Fela also seeks guidance from his deceased mother and from African spirits.
Saycon Sengbloh plays Sandra Isadore, an African-American woman who introduces Fela to Black Power ideals when his early travels take him to Los Angeles. In the musical, this leads Fela to use his music and his lifestyle to promote his African roots.
Lillias White portrays his pioneering feminist mother, Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti. A revered human-rights activist in her country, Funmilayo is presented as a saint, with a halo that lights up around her portrait whenever Fela speaks to her. White beautifully performs several powerful ballads, including “Trouble Sleep” and a new number written for the show, called “Rain,” in which Fela's martyred mother appears in a dream and inspires him to continue to fight injustice.
Colorful costumes and the amazing set, both designed by Marina Draghici, enhance the party atmosphere, particularly in a riveting, surreal dream sequence when Fela travels through the spirit world. Draghici's recreation of The Shrine includes Nigerian folk-art and political graffiti from the 1960s and '70s. Robert Wierzel's magical lighting, Robert Kaplowitz's sound and Peter Nigrini's projection design complete the feeling of being in a hip, slightly dangerous nightclub.
The political messages do not detract from the terrific work by the cast, the overriding musicality and outstandingly sensuous dance performances.
“Fela!” is a unique Broadway experience that leaves the audience on their feet and wanting more.