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Monday, 07 December 2009 22:00

Broadway Review: FELA!

Written by
Catherine Foster, Sahr Ngaujah and Nicole de Weever in Fela!
Photo: Monique Carboni

Thus far this season Fela! is the theatrical event of the season and should not be missed. It originated off-Broadway at 37 Arts last season and was the winner of this year’s Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical. It recreates the music and life of Nigerian musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, a political activist and the creator of a style of music known as Afrobeat (a blend of jazz, funk and African rhythm and harmonies). Much of the focus of Fela’s music was political corruption and human rights abuses, particularly aimed at the corrupt Nigerian government.

The theatre vibrates with Fela’s rhythmically charged music played by the Brooklyn-based Antibalis, a collective of musicians who have helped to introduce Afrobeat to a new generation. As you enter the theatre, music is already playing. The music is loud and hot. The line of demarcation between the proscenium wall has been eclipsed and Fela Kuti’s club, the Shrine, spills out into and encompasses the audience. Hanging on the walls is artwork depicting gods and those that went before them in the fight for human justice, including Fela’s own mother. The environment is electric and you immediately feel you are anywhere but in a Broadway theatre. The on-stage band begins to gather while girls dance in the wings, shaking their scantily clad bootyliciousness (of which there is plenty).

The club is set in Lagos, Nigeria in the 1970s. It is Fela’s last performance at his beloved club as he prepares to leave his home country. Fela is played by Sahr Ngaujah, a role he shares with Kevin Mambo. Ngaujah’s talent is astonishing and his energy unending. Throughout the show he picks up a saxophone and even a trumpet and plays them. At least that’s what I believed until well after the show. It turns out he doesn’t play the instruments but you would never know.

The cast of Fela!
Photo: Monique Carboni

Ngaujah is joined onstage by an equally talented cast. As Fela’s first wife (he ultimately married 27 women in a ceremony in 1987) Saycon Sengbloh gives a dynamic performance as do the other women representing Kuti’s other wives, or queens as he calls them. Each of these woman has created a unique character that is as organic as the piece itself. Hanging off of one of the boxes house right is a portrait of Fela’s mother. Fela is watched over by his mother as the painting comes to life. She is also manifest in an ethereal and lovely performance by Tony Award winner Lillias White.

Fela! has been deftly directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, a Tony Award winner for Spring Awakening. In addition to an outstanding cast, he has also assembled a crack design team that has created an astonishingly beautiful set that comes together through the scenic and costume design of Marina Draghici, the lighting design of Robert Wierzel and the mesmerizing projections of Peter Nigrini. Not to be outdone the wig and hair by Cookie Jordan completes the look.

Unfortunately this is a musical that could quickly disappear because it doesn’t appeal to a wide enough audience and doesn't develop an audience quickly enough. Open your hearts and your minds. Don’t miss this spectacular theatrical experience. You won’t regret it and you’ll never forget it.

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Read full production credits at the Internet Broadway Database.

Last modified on Thursday, 02 September 2010 22:29