Over two years ago, I said “FELA! is the greatest stage production I have ever experienced.” Some things never change.
When the bio-musical on the life of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti closed on January 2, 2011, Broadway lost some soul. Thankfully, FELA! is back on the Great White Way for 32 performances at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre (302 West 45th Street) in New York City. If there is anything you do between now and August 4 (two days after the 15th anniversary of Fela Kuti’s death), go experience the three-time Tony Award-winning musical.
Spearheaded by the legendary Bill T. Jones, who is a Kennedy Centers honoree, FELA! takes us to the Shrine Auditorium in Lagos, Nigeria, for what might be Fela’s final performance. We see his incredible journey as a struggling musician to an artist who would eventually “set the world on fire.” FELA! is not just a musical, it’s a celebration of life, passion and revolution.
For those who don’t know, Fela Kuti was to Nigeria what Bob Marley was to Jamaica. The singer-songwriter became famous for edgy, political songs like “Zombie,” “Everything Scatter” and “Black President.” Through art, he challenged a corrupt government and would suffer the consequences: Attacks on his compound and the murder of his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. Fela Kuti passed away of complications from HIV/AIDS on August 2, 1997; he was 58.
In previous productions, Kevin Mambo and Sahr Ngaujah spit fire into one of the most socially relevant artists of the 20th century. For Thursday’s opening night performance, Ngaujah introduced FELA! back to Broadway, which included a special treat of a 60-year-old Bill T. Jones gracing the stage for an impromptu dance, bringing the crowd to a frenzy.
A newcomer to playing Fela Kuti on Broadway is Adesola Osakalumi, who was once part of the ensemble cast. While I didn’t think it was humanly possible, Osakalumi was just as impactful and riveting as the other two leads. Fela is a grueling character to play for 2 hours and 40 minutes: high-energy monologues, big notes and serious emotional depth. The actor must add his own special sauce and gusto, which is what Osakalumi accomplished with a reverberating stage presence and a consistently haunting look in his eyes.
I saw Osakalumi with a tough crowd on Saturday afternoon, but the Bronx native blessed every molecule of the stage, insisting the audience get to their feet — he earned a well-deserved standing ovation. Most important, there were no residuals of Mambo and Ngaujah’s performances, Osakalumi made FELA! his own. Other newcomers were Melanie Marshall as Fela’s revolutionary mother and Paulette Ivory as Fela’s educated and passionate Black American girlfriend, Sandra. Both were simply phenomenal.
Written by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, FELA! shines at every angle: set design and costumes (Marina Draghici), music, and vibrant choreography. African dance is free-spirited and improvisational. When choreographed, the movements can easily look stiff and unnatural — but the superb Bill T. Jones gave cohesiveness and structure to African dance without losing its organic appeal. The gifted dancers gracefully manipulated their body into a praise-filled, sexy, Afro-beat frenzy, channeling the ancestors — I was waiting for it to thunder and lightening in the Al Hirschfeld Theatre!
A spectacular moment was “Originality/Yellow Fever,” which allowed the dancers to shine as Fela played the saxophone. Notables: Nicole Chantal de Weever, who gave new meaning to “I whip my hair back and forth!” and So You Think Can Dance’s Adé Chiké Torbert and Thierry Picaut, whose pelvic thrusts almost gave the first row a heart attack!
Side note: There must be a booty requirement to be part of the FELA! cast, while people of color are known to be blessed with extra backside, never have I seen so much booty-booty-booty. The cast of FELA! made J.Lo and Beyoncé look like booty amateurs!
It was my fourth time being transported to the Shrine Auditorium and it was equally as magnificent. If you will be in the New York City area this summer, make sure you see FELA! on Broadway, which runs until August 4 at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.