As a powerful and inspiring performance that has been impressing Broadway connoisseurs on an international scale, I don't think that my words can really do justice to the experience that is going to see Fela!, but the review that follows is my sincerest attempt to relay it to you.
Conceived by Bill T. Jones, Steve Handel and Jim Lewis, Fela! premiered on Off-Broadway in NYC in 2008, both directed and choreographed by Jones. The Broadway production opened on November 23, 2009 and ultimately received 11 Tony Award nominations, winning three of them, and even a getting a nod at the Grammys. Furthermore, Fela! received the HOVA stamp of approval when Jay-Z (along with Will and Jada-Pinkett Smith) signed on as a producer for the show's Broadway run. About his reasons for jumping on board, Jay told MTV News, "It's an inspiration, about the power of music. Here's a guy that's on the other side of the world who was influenced by James Brown, who takes this thing and makes his own sort of genre of music. I just think it's fascinating." After an extremely successful London production of the show, it began touring the U.S. last fall, opening with a Washington D.C. performance on September 16. Since then it has hit Toronto, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago, where it just wrapped up after running from March 27-April 15.
Several members of the GWHH crew made it out to showings of Fela! for either a Thursday or Saturday showing, and while I can only speak for the Thursday (4-12) night performance, I'm sure Saturday was no less amazing. In fact, the few pics that you'll see throughout this post will hopefully give you a sense of the important relationship that music and aesthetics have with one another in this show. Don't get me wrong, I realize that the visual component is critical to all musicals, what with elaborate costuming, set design and things of that nature, however to put it simply, Fela! is just on another level when it comes to how these aspects come together.
Photo credit: ChicagoNow
Let's start with the moment you walk in the theater: your eyes are assaulted with every color of the rainbow in the best possible way. The theater is staged to look like "The Shrine," a Nigerian nightclub started by the show's protagonist, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. A real historical figure from 1970's Africa, Kuti is a musician turned activist, and also a central pioneer in the genre called Afrobeat. He greets you on stage in a bright, baby blue jumpsuit covered with intricate white embroidery that not only reminds you that you're partying in the 70's, but also that this guy is a performer through and through, and when you listen to him shred on the sax while running around stage a little later in the show, it truly becomes a jaw-dropping experience. To give you a feel for Kuti's genre, Afrobeat, think of an organic blend of tribal, funk, hip-hop, and jazz that incorporates chanting, dancing, and interacting with the audience. It's just as cool as it sounds. Kuti, played by Sahr Ngaujah, would sit and chat with the audience, make us repeat chants after him, and even had everyone get up for the performance of "The Clock," during which Kuti and his dancers were essentially teaching the audience how to Pop, Lock, and Drop It.
So as you can tell, Fela! is an extremely interactive show, which is significant when you think of how that affects the energy levels of the room. Interaction and spontaneity keep performers and an audience engaged because they are depending upon one another in order to reach mutual success. If an audience becomes directly involved, particularly vocally, those on stage then have a way to gauge audience interest. Similarly, if the cast is running through the aisles, asking you to repeat phrases, taking asides to ask questions of you, or even giving you a dance lesson so that you can be involved in the next musical number, then more often than not your interest is going to be piqued and not only are you more engaged than you otherwise might be, but also you're going to feel (to some degree) that you've invested a part of yourself into the show. Aside from learning how to twerk circa 1970's Nigerian (counter)culture, another peak in Fela's interaction with the audience came toward the end of Act I during the number entitled "Expensive Shit," in which Fela sat on a stool to talk to the audience over an extremely large joint. While he wasn't actually smoking the ganj, he certainly appeared to be and all manner of improvised pot jokes started to flow in both directions, the least of which was Fela's insistence that "Puff Puff Pass" was the magic word for a particularly rowdy show-goer who wanted to get in on the star's green.
Photo credit: Chicago Tribune
While Fela Kuti is the clear protagonist of the show, I absolutely need to point out the skill of other performers that share the stage with him. Other key roles include Sandra played by Paulette Ivory, Ismael played by Ismael Kouyate, Djembe-'Mustafa' played by Rasaan-Elijah "Talu" Green, and the skilled tap dancer J.K. Braimah played by Gelan Lambert. I purposefully left out Funmilayo, Fela's deceased mother played by Melanie Marshall, because I think she needs a little more elaboration. This woman moved me. Throughout the show Fela addresses her portrait hung high on the stage, particularly when appealing to her spirit for guidance, but there are several numbers in which Marshall takes the stage to interact with Fela and you find yourself lost in her beautiful and powerful voice. "Trouble Sleep" is the only number that the two do together in the first act, but the more frequent incorporation of her character throughout the second fits perfectly as the show takes on a darker tone, in spite of the bubblegum pink outfit Fela dons at its outset.
Act II steers away from the humorous though a bit superficial entertainment you've become used to experiencing at "The Shrine" and takes on a much darker tone that weaves more serious themes into the artistry on the stage. This palpable turning point is representative of the change that occurred in the real Fela's motivations behind his music and the way in which he utilized fame. After meeting Sandra in the U.S. (which occurs in Act I of the show) and learning about the Black Power movement, Fela returned to Nigeria impassioned by political thought, a change that manifested itself in the creation of music with themes of social justice and a deviation from his previous inclination towards themes such as love. And it wasn't until Fela Kuti's return to Nigeria that he founded the Afrika Shrine nightclub along with "The Kalakuta Republic," which was a recording studio, commune, and home for many connected to the leader. His political shift is evident in the show from performances like "Zombie," a song whose origins come from Kuti's 1977 album of the same name that functioned as an attack on the Nigerian military whom they were metaphorically referring to as zombies.
Just when you think you've settled into the darker themes of the second act, BOOM, the regular lights get switched out for black lights, and designs on the set as well as new, outlandish costumes begin to pop under their glow. You come to learn that this instance of controlled chaos is mirroring the 1,000 soldier raid on The Kalakuta Republic, during which nearly all occupants were attacked and many women were beaten, sexually assaulted and, in the case of Fela's mother, killed as a result of being thrown from a window. At this point in the show, I'm silent and a little surprised that what started out as a 1970's dance party has become a disturbing commentary on the relationship between politics, violence, and freedom. However, Fela! rounds out with the performance of "Bring Your Own Coffin," a fitting and hopeful end to the show that, albeit a little morbid, is a multi-perspectival look at what it takes to have courage, what it means to truly stand up for your beliefs, and ultimately what the value is in having your voice heard.
I know it's a bit wordy for a review on a show that's not even in the Windy City anymore, but when you're wowed by pretty nearly every facet of a performance, it's a little hard to reign in your enthusiasm. In any case, Fela! has four more stops to make on its U.S. tour so if you have the time and opportunity you can catch it in Boston, Baltimore, Houston, or St. Paul through the middle of June.
ED NOTE: Fun fact: one of the top venues in Chicago is actually named after FELA's The Shrine - of course, we're talking about The Shrine (look at their logo, for instance)! Also added an official video from FELA! with the "Zombie" performance below.
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