Entertainment » Theatre

Fela!

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Monday Apr 30, 2012
Sahr Ngaujah in "Fela!"
Sahr Ngaujah in "Fela!"  

"Fela!" is a joyous requiem - that may seem a contradiction in terms, but the complicated life of musician/political activist/cultural icon Fela Anikulapo Kuti defies any categorization. A conventional musical retelling of his life would be futile. Instead what Bill T. Jones does is create a spectacular theatrical experience that falls somewhere between a revival meeting, a musical concert and a documentary with songs. It's a highly original hybrid.

Kuti was a driving force in world music in the 1970s, having developed a pop musical style called Afrobeat. Combining as diverse elements as cool jazz, Cuban rhythms, rhythm and blues, funk, and even the smooth vocal styling of singers like Frank Sinatra, the sound has an irresistible appeal; and it pulsates through this terrific musical, thanks to the onstage presence of its seven-piece band (made up of members of the pop group Antibalas) and its gifted ensemble.


Sahr Ngaujah in "Fela!"  

Kuti was more than just a musical superstar - he became an activist and anti-authority figure that went up against the repressive forces of the Nigerian government and military, and paid a heavy cost. Much of this is chronicled in the musical’s second half, when the events that led to the death of his mother - a feminist and political rabble-rouser - when she was thrown to her death from a second floor window of the Shrine, a Lagos-compound that was part nightclub, part church, where Kuti preached in song.

Not that Kuti was some Romney-like saint. "Fela!" doesn’t shirk from his bad-boy, even male-centric ways. At one point when faced with a half-dozen beautiful women, he chooses to marry them all (in real-life he married 27). The Shrine is as much a Nigerian Studio 54; but the spirit heard there is not hedonism, rather rebellion: at one point, Kuti says he’s antagonized the Nigerian authorities to the point where they hate him; but rather than run, he stays and taunts him, and is thrown into jail more than 20 times. (After his death from AIDS in 1997, some said that his death was caused not by complications of the virus, but by the repeated beatings he received while jailed).


Sahr Ngaujah and members of the ensemble from "Fela!"  

All of this is told in what’s an extended monologue as the remarkable Sahr Ngaujah gives life to the charismatic Kuti, who was known to his fans simply as Fela. Whether it’s playing a saxophone, trumpet or guitar, or leading the musicians in song and dance, Ngaujah is a sexy, almost intimidating presence. He doesn’t just ask the audience to participate, he tells them to. And if at times the musical appears to be an essay in hagiography, Ngaujah levels such moments with his multi-layered characterization: you sense there’s a bit of the gangster to Kuti that makes the portrait nuanced.

The premise has Kuti giving what he calls his final performance in the Shrine before he must leave Nigeria for fear of his life. The first offers a leisurely overview of his life: his education in London where he went to become a doctor but chose music instead; how Afrobeat came about (told in a clever number called "B.I.D. [Breaking It Down]"); and his time in the United States, where his first wife Izsadore Smith helped him develop his political consciousness. In the second half, Kuti’s rebellious spirit blossoms in his music, most notably in his world-wide hit "Zombie," which criticized the Nigerian military at 120-beats per minute.

Kuti’s music has an irresistible hook and unusual improvisational style - his songs don’t fit the standard pop song categorization. There’s a synergy between the vocalist and the band that’s both tight and loose, hot and cool; and this drives "Fela!" in ways that allow director/choreographer Bill T. Jones to build long, sinewy movement to accompanying the music. Jones’s staging is in perfect pitch with the material, which unfolds in a series of musical anecdotes culminating in a horrific recreation of an attack on Kuti’s compound by Nigerian soldiers and a beautifully played coda in which all those who have died in the struggle for freedom are represented by coffins. The moment is inspired by the emotional response Kuti had to his mother’s death when he brought her coffin to the steps of the military’s headquarters in Logos.


Melanie Marshall in "Fela!"  

This isn’t to suggest the "Fela!" is some well-meaning political tract. Far from it. It’s a more of a party than a polemic - a celebration of a unique talent told in bold strokes. Designer Marina Draghici sets the action in a colorfully funky, corrugated aluminum-walled club, then dresses the company in a gorgeous array of authentic costumes. In the second half, she provides a surreal element in a nightmarish dream sequence that’s breathtakingly realized. Abetting her in this theatrical magic are Robert Wierzel’s striking lighting, Peter Nigrini’s beautifully integrated video projections and superb sound design by Robert Kaplowitz.

The final element that makes "Fela!" such an extraordinary entertainment is the ensemble. Ngaujah, who has been playing the role since the show first appeared off-Broadway in 2008, nails the many facets and contradictions of Kuti, and does so with a mix of sexual swagger and preacher’s persuasion. As Funmilayo, his martyred mother, Melanie Marshall provides some show-stopping vocals as the show’s spiritual center; and Paulette Ivory brings a blazing presence to Sandra Izsadore, the American woman that educated Kuti in the ways of the political world.

But it is when the company circles, spins, dances up the aisles and taunts the audience into joining in that "Fela!" ascends into greatness. The combination of Jones’s inspired dancing and the talent of this ensemble make this one entertainment not to be missed. "Fela!" defies most of the conventions of musical theater, which may be why it is so special and so dynamic.

Fela! continues at the Cutler Majestic Theatre through May 6, 2012. For more on the production and tour, visit the "Fela!" website.


Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


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