Theatre Mirror Reviews -"Fela"

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note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth


"Fela!"
is fantastic!

Reviewed by Sheila Barth

Rarely am I mesmerized and overwhelmed by a show, but at award-winning Broadway musical, “Fela!,” the packed audience and I left the theater, hushed, awe-stricken.

The brilliant national touring company, featuring some of the Broadway performers, stars Sahr Ngaujah, who uncannily resembles the late, controversial Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.

Under the brilliant eye of Director-Choreographer Bill T. Jones, this multimedia, multi-level, explosive musical has gained international acclaim on three continents, with its pulsating Afrobeat; Jones’ energetic, tribal choreography; Marina Draghici’s fabulous, colorful, vibrant set and costumes that authentically recreate Fela’s Nigerian nightclub; Robert Wierzel’s eye-popping lighting; and Robert Kaplowitz’s sound design. Peter Nigrini’s projections beam historic riots, streetscapes, crowds, headlines on monitors mounted on both sides of the stage and a huge background screen.

The play’s biographical, incendiary content is heart-stopping, shocking, zeroing in on Fela’s war against Nigeria’s military regimes and international exploitive large companies. Instead of guns and weapons, Kuti performed globally, using his innovative music and political lyrics as his weapons. Conductor Aaron Johnson on keyboards and trombone and his magnificent musicians on the left-side of the stage, including drummer Rasaan Elijah “Talu” Green, are commanding throughout this spectacular.

Directed and choreographed by multi-award winner Bill T. Jones, who also co-conceived this musical and the book, (which garnered support from celebs such as Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter), “Fela!” captivates on all levels.

Unfortunately, Fela Kuti, who created this verbal, musical uprising, is no longer with us. He died at age 58 on August 2, 1997, allegedly of complications from AIDS, but his minions of followers suggest he endured too many savage beatings and abuse from the military government that arrested him more than 200 times. His funeral drew 1 million mourners to his native Lagos, Nigeria.

Son of a pastor-professional pianist father and political activist mother, Fela was sent to London to study medicine, but studied music instead. He formed his own band and brand of music, toured internationally, and was later motivated by American activist Sandra Isidore in Los Angeles. Although Fela was a headliner, he was determined to return to his native Lagos, Nigeria, to champion the poor and downtrodden.

Fela opened a club, The Shrine, in a dangerous section of Lagos, where his band and dancers performed throughout the night. To protect himself and his patrons, he created a compound, the Kalakuta Republic, surrounding it with barbed wire. In 1977, 1,000 soldiers stormed Kalakuta, beat, raped, tortured Fela’s followers and family, threw his 82-year-old mother out a second-story window, then set fire to the compound, barring firefighters from getting through to extinguish the blaze. Everything that Fela had written, performed, recorded - all of his belongings, the club - were destroyed, and his beloved mother succumbed from her injuries.

In this national touring musical, Sahr Ngaujah is superb. He sings, dances, acts, plays instruments, leading theatergoers the way firebrand Fela did at The Shrine. He evokes ya-yas and other responses, leads a dance lesson, inspiring everyone to swing, shake and rotate to his hypnotic, throbbing rhythms as the dancers line the aisles and stage.

Melanie Marshall’s voice and presence as Fela’s mother-muse, Funmilayo, are hauntingly mesmerizing, especially in “Rain”. A comforting ethereal being in Fela’s embattled life, she radiates supernatural rays and a heavenly glow. Ismael Kouyate and Gelan Lambert are also stand-outs amid this superlative cast.

Paulette Ivory as Sandra Isidore shines in her duets, “Lover” and Upside Down,” and the cast bursts with explosive energy in “Water No Get Enemy” and the allegorical B.Y.O.C. (Bring Your Own Coffin)- “Coffin for the State”.

Spiritualists believe Fela walks among the Yorishas (ancestral spirits), whom he espoused, but his spirit and message resound more colorfully, more vibrant than ever here, “Fela!” is a captivating phenomenon that resonates with every beat, every move.

BOX INFO: Two-act multi-award winning musical, book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, music, lyrics by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, now to May 6, at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont St., Boston.Performances:Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2,8 p.m.; Sunday, 2,7:30 p.m. Tickets: $23.50-$123.50. Visit the Paramount Center Box Office at 559 Washington St., online at www.artsemerson.org or call 617-824-8000.

"Fela!" (24 April - 13 May)
ARTS EMERSON
@ Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont Street, BOSTON MA
1(617)824-8400

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