Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Fela!-Show Review

Fela!, an offbroadway musical that runs through the end of September at 37 Arts Theater, celebrates the life of Fela Anikulapo Kuti by bringing his music to life with captivating choreography, telling his story, and paying tribute to the legacy of his international protest voice. An ensemble cast of twenty-six actors, dancers, and musicians uses music, dance, video and still projections to tell stories from Fela's life. Sahr Ngaujah, who starred in the title role, has all of Fela's charisma and stage presence and then some. The creative choreography and set design paint a vivid picture of who Fela was and how he became the man we know today.

Bill T. Jones, a Tony award winning director and choreographer, Rikki Stein, Fela's former manager and the executor of his estate, and playwright Jim Lewis first met with Aaron Johnson and Victor Axelrod of Antibalas in the summer of 2006 to discuss their idea for the production. Later that year, Antibalas had a one day work session with the producers of the show and some dancers at which point they decided there was potential to pursue a show.

What they've come up with is an inventive, vibrant production that pays tribute to Fela's life by using his music to tell his story. The theater is setup to replicate The Shrine, Fela's home base nightclub in Lagos, Nigeria, with Antibalas taking the place of Afrika 70. When the show started, and Fela welcomed the audience to the Shrine, I thought to myself, "If everyone in the audience was dancing and ganja smoke filled the air, this would be just like the Shrine." Both things happened during the first act.

The story unfolds as musical numbers alternate with monologues and video projections to recap events from Fela's youth, adulthood and rise to fame. Major events from Fela's life up until the death of his mother are portrayed including Fela's college years in London, his trip to America and first marriage, the creation of his first band Koola Lobitos, one of his first encounters with the law (famously known as the "Expensive Shit" episode), his joint marriage of twenty-seven wives, and the attack on Kalakuta Republic.

Bill T. Jones is extremely successful in both paying homage to an internationally revered musical icon as well as introducing Fela to a new generation of people through this play. He introduces the different elements of Afrobeat by recounting the history of Fela's exposure to different styles of music in Africa, London, and the United States. The musical arrangements include the music of Fela's youth, highlife (as represented by an E. T. Mensah song--Medzi Medzi), big-band jazz (represented by Frank Sinatra), funk (James Brown), and cuban salsa. The rest of the show's music consists of Fela's most popular songs he recorded with Afrika 70 in the first half of his career including among others I.T.T., Water Get No Enemy, Shuffering and Smiling, Zombie, Sorrow Tears and Blood, and Coffin for Head of State.

Jones pays a special tribute to Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Fela's mother from whom he inherited much of his rebellious spirit. She was an internationally recognized women's' rights activist who was the first African woman to drive a car and travel to China. She is portrayed as an angelic figure in the play and her death at the hands of the Nigerian Army is the pinnacle event of the production.

To include the complexity and complete scope of Fela's life and music would have taken much longer than a couple hours, so obviously major elements of Fela's life and musical repertoire were omitted. Major characters in his life such as his spiritual advisor Professor Hindu and his brother Beko did not appear at all. Much of the dancing performed by the female dancers, although extremely captivating and majestic, was not reminiscent of that which one would have seen at the Shrine in Lagos or at any other of Fela's performances around the world.

If you are a disciple of Fela and an avid Afrobeat fan, or you've never heard of him before and simply love good music and dancing, you'll love this show. Bill T. Jones and Antibalas do justice to the legacy of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, one of the most dynamically prolific protest figures and musical icons in the history of the world, by celebrating his music and political message in a modern context. In a time where America could be on the verge of electing its first Black President, this play provides historical context to the international significance of Fela's legacy and its effect on contemporary culture.


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