BOTTOM LINE: An incredible Afrobeat concert-slash-African dance show. All in all, an enjoyable night of entertainment.
Fela is the hot new Broadway musical produced by Will Smith and Jay-Z. I use the word ”new” liberally since it opened last fall, after a rather lengthy off-Broadway run. I apologize for the tardiness of this review, in part because the show has been playing for ages at this point, but also because I’ve heard and read so much about it (dissenting opinions every which way) that it’s hard for me to be unbiased. At the end of the day, I had a great time at the show and I consider it a crowd-pleaser. It is certainly one I would recommend. However, artistic shortcomings are certainly present, and anyone with an overly discerning and critical eye might find some issues that stand in the way of a good time. That said — naysayers can always take it for what it is and be entertained in spite of themselves.
This show tells the true story of Nigerian activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti and his journey from rebel to musician to wannabe politician to icon. 1960s Nigeria was not a stable place and Fela wanted to change that. He was a generally good guy, a musician with an affinity for sex and smoking pot, and he couldn’t stand the injustices with which the government presided over the Nigerian people. So Fela took action and made his voice known. Through his own music, this show highlights his life through song, dance, projections and artistic intent to transform the theatre into the Shrine, the Nigerian club at which he often performed.
Fela’s music is brought to 21st-century Broadway audiences by the show’s house band, also known as Antibalas (they were a well-known Afrobeat band before joining this show). Antibalas rocks, and rocks hard. And the band members are always present on stage, sometimes even interacting with the cast. Since much of the show takes place in the Shrine, it makes complete sense to constantly see the instruments and musicians that are creating such a full and enjoyable musical experience. Fela himself (Kevin Mambo the night I saw the show, also played by Sahr Ngaujah) is the front man for the band. He sings and plays the saxophone (well, he mimes playing the saxophone, but he does really sing). With horns, drums and guitars, the Afrobeat sound pulses through the theatre. If you have an affinity for this type of music (or if you like reggae, which is very similar) I encourage you to see Fela if for no other reason than the concert value. It’s one of the best concerts I’ve been to in a while – which is weird, because it’s a Broadway musical.
The show’s artistic integrity is strong, but as I indicated earlier, the script is pretty weak. It’s about Fela’s life indeed, and the audience sees both his struggles and the reasons for his anger. But nothing is ever really elaborated upon and the Nigerian history, critical to the plot and its motivations, are never really explained. Of course Broadway audiences aren’t looking for a history lesson, but some supporting information would certainly help the audience identify with the story. And let’s not undermine those who attend Broadway musicals – they just might want to learn something, too. The set design uses projections of still images as well as video of 1960s Nigeria. It definitely helps bridge the understanding of the real-life cultural implications, but it’s only a cursory glance into the reality of Fela’s experiences.
Bill T. Jones (Spring Awakening) directed and choreographed this show — his theatrical yet authentically African dances are phenomenal to watch. The dancers (really the entire ensemble, except for Lillias White who plays Fela’s mother) are a powerful troupe with extraordinary energy and a joy that radiates from their bodies as they move. They are athletic and graceful — sort of like Alvin Ailey with less ballet and more African. It’s a gorgeous spectacle.
White is a seasoned Broadway performer and she doesn’t disappoint as Fela’s mom. She’s not on stage much, but she’s a powerhouse in her own right. Mambo, as Fela, held the audience’s attention for the duration of the show. The role is demanding, and I totally understand why two men must alternate, each playing four performances per week. For both acts, over two hours, Fela is in charge of the hundreds of people along for the ride and he must charm the audience and lead his ensemble, all the while singing and dancing and personifying a real guy’s struggles.
Fela should be applauded for its unique approach to storytelling and for introducing Broadway audiences to Afrobeat. It has certainly been commercialized enough to fit comfortably at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, but its innovation is obvious. This show is a good bet if you are looking for a fun night of entertainment that is thought-provoking but not heavy. If you have any interest in the afrobeat genre it is a must see for the concert value alone. It might be Fela’s show, but Antibalas makes everyone shine.
Fela plays at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49th St. Performances are Tue 7 PM, Wed and Sat 2 and 8 PM, Thu-Fri 8 PM, and Sun 3 PM. Tickets are $55-$122 and available at telecharge.com or by calling 800-432-7250; try discount code FEHHC107 for tickets as low as $35. For more show info, visit felaonbroadway.com.