A Broadway show on the life of a political, musical and African revolutionary may not seem like a good mix for the stage. However, Fela! has garnered nearly perfect reviews, 11 Tony Award nominations and three wins, including the legendary Bill T. Jones for best choreography. After seeing the show last night, Fela! lives up to the hype. Actually, no amount of hype could touch the beauty and passion of this production — directed by Jones, Fela! is flawless.
Through music, art, folklore and politics, Fela! follows the extraordinary life of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. In case you don’t know, Fela was a popular Nigerian musician who gained fame during a transitional (and corrupt) era in Nigeria. He bucked the system, spit at the government and believed that music could change the world — becoming the self-proclaimed “Black President.” Other details: Fela married 27 women in one ceremony (mainly his dancers), his mother was murdered by the government after a raid on his home, and in 1997 Fela passed away of complications from HIV/AIDS. He was 58-years-old.
This is a lot to pack in a Broadway show full of music and dance, but written by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, Fela! superbly finds a balance with story and visuals. The set design is colorful, imaginative and effortlessly transports you to 1970s Nigeria at the legendary Shrine, which is the night we, the audience, sees him, as he contemplates leaving Nigeria after the murder of his mother.
Fela is played by Kevin Mambo and Sahr Ngaujah. The night I attended, Mambo took the stage, bringing Kuti back from the dead with earthshaking monologues, other-worldly vocals and possessed-like dancing. You are in Fela’s world and you never want it to end.
Not enough can be said about the dancing, music and singing in this production. The cast moved as if their bodies were taken over by spirits of joy, redemption, sorrow, triumph and, at the end, pure catharsis. A standout, Lauren De Veaux, was Angela Bassett if she were a professional singer and dancer; regal and poised but could still pull from her gut. All of the dancers moved their bodies with an erotic elegance, flowing as one but knowing how to let the other shine.
Vocally, Kevin Mambo shot down any R&B or pop singer you’ve heard on the radio in the past 10 years. But, it wasn’t just the notes; there was a vigor in his belly, singing like it was the last moment of his life. Then, there is Lillias White, who plays Fela’s mother. The woman next to me shouted, “That’s the African Patti LaBelle!” That says it all.
While the music, dance, visuals and vocals are perfection, it doesn’t matter if there isn’t a solid storyline — if that is the case, you can go to a concert. At the heart of this production, Fela’s story was exquisitely told, focusing on his passion, his mission, his anger and not making him a tragic figure who succumbed to HIV/AIDS.
There is a reason why Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith presented Fela!; each scene is at a level 10 and there was clearly sensitivity mixed with truth to bring Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s life to the Broadway stage. Fela himself would be proud. Fela! is the greatest stage production I have ever experienced.
Fela! is playing until early 2011. Click here to purchase tickets: http://www.felaonbroadway.com/
Fela! is presented at the Eugene O’Neill Theater, 230 West 49th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.
Follow Fela! on Twitter: http://twitter.com/felamusical