How do you solve a problem like Fela!? If you’re crafting a musical based on the radical Nigerian musician who created the genre “Afrobeat” and used it to criticize his government, you must formulate a production that is just as outside-the-box as the man was. Director Bill T. Jones presents a Broadway-quality experience that feels unlike anything “Broadway.”
Jones paints the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in Fela’s colors. The show felt like it had already begun when I walked into the director/choreographer’s old Spring Awakening home. The band is already playing, and as I step into the building, I see that covering the walls are murals of African art, enlargements of Fela’s headline-making antics, and strands of lights stretching all the way from the back mezzanine to the boxes. The theater is unrecognizable and I felt like I wanted to get a table and eat a good meal there. For this show, arriving to the theater early allows you time to soak up the mood of Fela’s world and by the time the show begins (forgoing the parental “Unwrap your candy, turn off your cell phones” warning), your interest will be piqued.
I knew nothing about Fela Anikulapo-Kuti prior to this show, and I’m venturing to say few others did too. But being this is a bio-musical, the narrative is supposed to take care of that for you. By curtain call, I did have an understanding of Fela’s life, but I can’t say I’d pass a test on the details. I then thought theatergoers would benefit from a little trip to Wikipedia before taking their seats, but then certain plot points would be less of a surprise, such as Fela’s mother’s death (don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler. It’s made clear in the Playbill that she is dead, but the circumstances surrounding it are the real shocker).
One of Fela!’s main problems is that there’s a lot of information given about this man’s complicated life, but many details are drowned out by overly-amped instruments and thick Nigerian accents. After being frustrated with myself for a while over feeling cloudy on the facts of Fela’s life and wondering if the show was a little over my head, I accepted the notion that I didn’t have to leave being an expert on the man. That said, Robert Kaplowitz and his sound design team could cut back on the (excellent) band’s volume, and the whirlwind of an actor who is Sahr Ngaujah (Fela) could try and enunciate a little clearer through his dialect.
That said, Ngaujah is eye-popping as Fela. If anything is to be understood from this musical, it is that Fela was a passionate man. Ngaujah plays Fela with an electricity that probably is powering the aforementioned lights hanging above the theater. He moves, shouts, and belts with an immense love for his country, beliefs, and music. Ngaujah oozes charisma (I think it manifests itself in sweat) and makes it believable how Fela was able to become such a respected and feared leader. It’s an incredibly real and joyous performance.
As Funmilayo, Fela’s mother, Lillias White makes quite an impression with few scenes (particularly without being well-lit in most of them). White has all-consuming stage presence—she doesn’t need lighting. She appears to Fela, even in death, as a powerful female figure who is the clear source of Fela’s courage and passion. White, Ngaujah, and the phenomenal lighting design of Robert Wierzel make for a dream sequence in Act II that stands as one of the best scenes of this Broadway season.
Fela! has its own Fela behind the scenes—a passionate man, trying to convey a message. Conceiver/director/choreographer/book writer Jones has created a show that spits in the face of powers that dictate what makes a successful Broadway endeavor. Instead, the man who won a Tony for teaching Melchior and Moritz how to rock their Latin class built a truly creative and abstract staging of a person who is, no doubt, inspiring to him. Jones’ direction allows the show to not only come alive on stage, but also to envelope the entire theater. With the scenery already extending up to the back of the mezzanine and dancers gyrating and sprinting up there as well, the entire audience is encompassed in the show, and the effect heightens the experience. Jones’ choreography is as vibrant as can be, and seems to become one with the music.
Jones’ book (in collaboration with Jim Lewis) is the only aspect of Fela! that falls short. When not in the midst of a time-stretching musical interlude, Fela monologues to the audience, in narration of his life, and the lack of dialogue becomes wearing. Fela’s wife Sandra (the beautiful-voiced Saycon Sengbloh) speaks only a few lines, and even the important role of Funmilayo has little to say (she sings more). More spoken words could have been added to these two important women in Fela’s life.
Fela! is an incredibly visual show, successful in all areas. Jones’ exciting choreography is only heightened by those sexy and skin-baring costumes by Marina Draghici. Wierzel’s lighting keeps the show visually engaging at all times and is paired well with the spectacular video projections by Peter Nigrini. Where the national tour revival of Dreamgirls presented a video design that served no purpose, Nigrini’s design for Fela! better informs the audience. Headlines of Fela’s activism take the burden off the book and lyrics. Subtitles convey drama of plotlines so that speeches don’t have to. Furthermore, they’re projected not just over the stage, but on the walls of the theater, to further encompass the audience. Video projections can be theater’s new trend as long as they serve a purpose. Fela! can set the precedent for that.
While plot points and details of this complicated man’s life might take a backseat to the raucous band, all of Fela!’s ingredients will portray what is really important that the audience take away. And that will be a unique, sense-searing performance that is most of all—as Fela would want it—loud.
Editor’s note: I was invited to see Fela! and did not rush it. There is a student rush policy for the show. Tickets are $27 each and go on sale two hours prior to the performance. Only one ticket per ID.