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'Fela!' on Broadway: Moving the masses

December 8, 2009 |  6:00 am

Fela
Note to producers worried about the tough economics of Broadway: If you can’t get a big-name movie star to anchor your show, consider enlisting a groundbreaking choreographer to liven things up.

“Fela!”, the most exuberant new musical I’ve seen this fall, may not have a “name” cast. But it has in Bill T. Jones, who directed and choreographed this work about the life of Nigerian musician, composer and activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (known as Fela), a theatrical sensibility capable of steeping an entire audience in the compulsive full-body experience of Afrobeat, which Fela pioneered.

Featuring a book by Jones and Jim Lewis and the pulsating rhythms and radical lyrics of Fela's music, the show, which had its world premiere off-Broadway last year, teaches the American musical new moves. And I’m not just referring to what happens onstage. Like the current Broadway revival of “Hair,” directed by Diane Paulus and choreographed by the cutting-edge Karole Armitage, “Fela!” doesn’t permit theatergoers to sit by passively.

Fela 2 A rousing, always in motion Sahr Ngaujah, who alternates in the title role with Kevin Mambo, enjoins the audience to sing and shake their derrieres along with him. A skimpily clad ensemble streams up and down the aisle to bring the musical's energy directly to us. Differences in age and size are no obstacles as spectators learn to get down West African style: For 2 1/2 bouncy hours, self-consciousness is magically held in abeyance.

As much a concert and a dance piece as it is a musical, “Fela!” is perhaps best described as a work of total theater. More visually and aurally mesmerizing than dramatically stirring, the work achieves a unique build by focusing on the emotion that galvanized this iconic performer to battle political oppression in his African homeland, no matter the colonial or post-colonial source. 

This dissident journey isn't related with anything resembling documentary thoroughness (Fela's run-ins with the authorities are fuzzily presented and there's oddly no mention of his death from AIDS-related causes). But the spirit of his fight for justice is made universally resonant, and the fusion of his sound is rapturously celebrated with a pinwheel parade of pelvises. 
 
By the legerdemain of scenic and costume designer Marina Draghici and projection designer Peter Nigrini, the normally staid Eugene O’Neill Theatre has been converted into the Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria, where Fela has gathered his fans for his final concert there. ("Too much Nigeria will give you broken heads, burned houses, dead students.") The ambience of this club setting aspires to bridge the actor-spectator divide, which makes sense given the way Fela used music to create human solidarity. Antibalas, a dynamic onstage band from Brooklyn, suffuses the house in a sea of compulsive, masterfully arranged sound.
 
Jones’ choreography never lets us lose sight of a fundamental source of our shared humanity, a locus of reliable ecstasy and inevitable suffering: the body. That bond, joyfully explored in his circumambient musical staging, has a grass-roots power, of which the singer knew people must be regularly reminded. Community, after all, is an ongoing work in progress, and tyranny and corruption have recidivistic tendencies that are virtually impossible to root out. Afrobeat, like rap, derives its enormous empowering potential by smuggling lyrics straight into blood and muscle.

Lillias White, a Tony winner for her performance in “The Life,” plays Fela's politically courageous mother, who falls victim to the military authorities harassing her son. She has a rousing number in the second half's afterlife sequence that brings down the house.

But there’s something democratizing about stardom in this show. Those in the spotlight are granted the opportunity to invite the masses to share in the glory — as well as the responsibility — of collective action.

Broadway these days is becoming ever more dependent on celebrities to sell tickets. While Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig raked in the dough for “A Steady Rain” and Jude Law drove in brisk box office for “Hamlet,” many shows without boldface names, even those that have received ample critical praise, have struggled to stay afloat.

Fela!” has superstar producers in Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, but that’s not why this musical event -- ritual is more like it -- is likely to attract repeat visitors. Under Jones’ inclusive vision, the production becomes a party, in which the power of the people is unleashed with a contagious jiggle.  

--Charles McNulty

Photos: Top: Sahr Ngaujah, center, and company. Bottom: Ngaujah, center, and company. Credit: Monique Carboni

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