Why “Fela!” is Such a Winnah! (A guest blog from Broadway & Me)

Every Broadway show is a crapshoot. No one knows for sure what audiences will like and what they won’t.  Still, the odds seemed higher than usual against the new musical Fela! Its score—a throbbing mix of jazz, funk and traditional African rhythms known as Afrobeat—is as far away from the show tune as Lagos is from Long Island. Its book—the life story of the controversial Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti—isn’t the usual Broadway fare either.  And there are no celebrity names in the cast. But Fela! has turned out to be a winner.

You can tell that by the fact that it’s selling out about 95% of its seats while shows that seemed surer bets have been closing left and right. Or by the way the audience members literally dance in the aisles at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, where the show seems likely to enjoy a good run. Or by the smile that spread across the face of my niece Jennifer, who is only 30 but has been going to Broadway shows for over 25 years and is as jaded as they come. As the show ended, Jennifer turned to me with a grin. “Yeah, yeah,” she said, nodding her head and pumping her fists in time to the music as she echoed Fela’s trademark exclamation of approval.

For despite its potentially downer subject matter (Fela is jailed, his wives—he was married to as many as 12 of them at a time in real life—tortured, his mom, their country’s leading feminist, is killed) Fela! may be the feel-good show of the season. The music, performed by the Brooklyn-based Afrobeat band Antibalas, is infectiously joyous, the dancing is amazing (a BIG shoutout to the tireless troupe of hip-shaking dancers), many of the jokes provoke belly laughs and the show plays into the fascination with Africa that is currently influencing fashion and art (click here to read a New York Times story about the trend).

I first saw Fela! when it played at the 37 Arts Theatre in the fall of 2008 and was wowed by it even though, at three hours, the show was waaaaay too long and its story more than a bit confusing. The credit for its now streamlined success has to go to Bill T. Jones, the Tony-winning choreographer for Spring Awakening, who not only conceived, directed and choreographed Fela! but hired Lillias White to sing the hell out of the songs given to Fela’s mother and persuaded the rapper-mogul Jay-Z and the movie star-moguls Will and Jada Pinkett Smith to invest in the show and lend their names to it as over-the-title producers. Jones has also promoted the show relentlessly (click just about anywhere on the internet, TV or radio to read or hear him give his spiel or click here ).

What I most loved when I saw the show at 37 Arts was the star-making performance by Sahr Ngaujah as Fela. As I said in my review back then (click here to read what I said) I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role. Fela sings, dances and narrates the entire show (no one else even speaks). It’s an exhausting job. So Ngaujah now shares the role with Kevin Mambo. My heart sank when I saw the insert announcing that Mambo was playing the part the night Jennifer and I attended the show. But while it’s true that Mambo may not have Ngaujah’s charisma, he’s no slouch either.

The man sitting across the aisle from me rushed in just before the show began.  He carried an expensive-looking brief case and wore an expensive-looking suit. I took him to be a lawyer or a lower-level, not-getting-quite-a-billion-dollars-bonus investment banker. He boogied at every opportunity (there are moments when the audience is invited to stand up and dance along) and even snuck in a few extra wiggles while in his seat. I wager that if you could find him and ask him, he’d say that Fela! offers as good a bet as they come, a fine return on your ticket-price investment.

Broadway & Me: news and reviews from a theater lover with a point of view.

One thought on “Why “Fela!” is Such a Winnah! (A guest blog from Broadway & Me)

  1. Fela is simply “Felawful!” This pseudo biographical/politcal play with “music” fails to impress, elucidate, or pack an emotional punch. Musically, it is overly simplistic, minimilistic, and repetitive, and is insulting to cultivated theatergoers. Although billed as an “original” score, there is nothing “new” about so called afro-beat. Indeed, one can hear sub terrain kids in the subway banging on garbage cans who are far more adroit. Don’t expect to be singing show tunes on the way out of the Eugene O’Neil, who is rollng over in his grave, Theater. There isn’t anything remotely melodic, harmonic, or musical in the monotonous, insistent. and verbose score. It is a musical abyss.

    The show is likewise devoid of dancing. Shaking one’s ass to the point of delirium while doubled over is more akin to ferrel animals or drunk teenagers than professional dancers. Moreover, asking blue haired seniors from the suburbs to stand in an attempt to teach them an afro version of the Hokey Pokey is about as entertaining as a clown at a child’s birthday party. If I had a choice, I’d take the clown.

    Don’t expect an enlightening account of Fela’s life, because the libretto is conspicuously devoid. Instead, Fela attempts to merely replicate a concert, which is loosely tied with haphazard and hollow vignettes. Accordingly, the libretto is incapable of forwarding the action or integrate music, because there isn’t any. In addition, the show glosses over relevant descriptive information. It discounts Fela’s multitude of wives, and fails to explicate his AIDS related death. Instead, the show meekly attempts to leave an “impression,” indicating the creators failed to put effort into content. The residue is utterly meaningless, and negates the essence of this fascinating performer and political activist. As a result, the audience is denied any sense of authenticity, and subsequently any sense of authentic emotion. The only thing I felt was an uncontrolled desire to leave, which many people justifiably did both before and during intermission.

    Perhaps the worst offense is the fact that Fela is overly loud. You can not understand anything anyone is saying because all you hear is a bass heavy boom, boom, boom, like a rude driver who feels compelled to turn his stereo to the max. Cognizant of this fact, the producers opted to flash the unintelligible lyrics on a plasma screen behind the performers. However, if you are sitting on side right of left of the stage, the screen is not fully visible, and only adds a sense of frustration. Because the show was amplified to the point of ad nauseum, it is best to visit a ubiquitous Rite Aid and pick up several packs of ear plugs.

    In all, Fela is a disgraceful mess. It attacks and rapes the pedagogical traditions of musical theater, while masquerading as a bona fide Broadway show. It is uncreative, unoriginal, and unsophisticated, limiting its accessibility to the uninformed, pseudo intellectuals, and European tourists who can not fluidly communicate in English. It is recalcitrant, antithetical, and incompatible to the honored and revered traditions of the Great White Way.
    But its difference does not translate into something good. Fela fails because it does not live up to Broadway’s reputable caliber. Accordingly, It is nothing more than an overblown and overhyped “Felop!”


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