Friday, February 19, 2010

Our third show on Broadway was FELA! based on the life of Nigerian singer and political activist Fela Kuti.

Now my knowledge of Kuti was minimal - I knew he was a singer, I knew he died of AIDS and I remember Richard playing him sometimes at the old shop when I was slow at getting to the cd player! I was intrigued by the show as it had received huge critical acclaim and seemed such an odd fit among the other shows currently playing.

The show is the brainchild of choreographer Bill T. Jones, Jim Lewis and Stephen Hendel and is obviously a labour of love, opening off-Broadway and achieving a transfer to the Eugene O'Neill Theatre due to it's great reviews and the goodwill of many. It's certainly an engaging experience but there are certain nagging doubts about the show.

The show takes place in the Shrine club in Lagos, Nigeria. The Shrine was the club that Fela Kuti made his own as it was across from the compound he shared with his followers and his political activist mother Funmilayo. It's the summer of 1978 and Fela is about to play his last show there as he is quitting his Afrobeat music and Nigeria to try and raise an uprising against the tyrannical political system.

In between his songs, Fela tells us of his life - how he became politicised during visits to the UK and USA while a student and how he used western musical influences to infuse his music. He tells of his constant battles with the government of General Obasanjo - riddled with corruption due to the oil-rich coffers of Nigeria. He also is haunted by visions of his mother who we later find out had been murdered six months earlier by government troops who stormed his compound. And that's about it for plot. This loose frame is there to showcase the fantastic Afrobeat music and vibrant, in-your-face choreography of Bill T. Jones. Sadly the momentum that the exciting musical numbers generate tends to get dissipated by the need to get back to the flimsy plotline of Fela's reminiscences. It would have been better if Jones and Lewis had just made the show a musical celebration without the need to "tell a story". Despite the book, you come away with no real idea of the man or what his agenda would have been had he managed to overthrow the government.

The whole idea behind the book is that on this night in 1978 something momentous happened - but a caption flashed up on the back of the set rather deflates what has gone before by simply telling us that he died in 1997 and never left Nigeria. Oh... so he did nothing else for 19 years? It leaves you feeling oddly becalmed after such a wild evening. Also I found that despite a late attempt to give the women onstage a voice and a political context, up until then they were only used to bump and grind to the music - kinda having your cake and eating it too. Fela's decision to marry 27 of the women in his compound is also presented less to protect them from sexual harassment than because they are hot babes.However as I said, it's the music numbers and performances that made for a memorable show.

The onstage band of ten musicians under the musical direction of Aaron Johnson were fantastic, filling the theatre with pulsing rhythms that it was impossible to stay still to and the 19 ensemble dancers were astonishing - constantly moving, throwing shapes with the wildest-looking abandon which of course is due to the strongest discipline.The lead role is shared by two actors on alternate nights so our Fela, as it were, was the perfectly named Kevin Mambo who gave a performance of unrelenting passion - if you look up the phrase 'full on' in your reference book you will see Brother Mambo looking out at you. It was a surprise looking at his biog in the interval to find he is actually American as his Nigerian accent is right on the Naira. His committed performance made you wish the book had given him stronger material to work with when he wasn't singing or showing us how to do the Clock with our hips.
For the third night running we were missing a major cast member, sadly here it was Lilias White who i was hoping to see as I had liked her on the cast recording of THE LIFE. Her role as the Fela's beloved mother Funmilayo was played by Abena Koomson who had played the role off-Broadway. She sang her two songs well but her big song in the second act was rather bland, probably reflecting the fact that it was the only one actually written for the show.
The other main female role of Sandra Isadore, the American feminist who raised Fela's political consciousness was well sung by Saycon Sengbloh (who is coming to London as part of the HAIR company soon) although again she wasn't really given much to do.A considerable amount of the show's success is also attributable to the vivid set and costume design of Marina Draghici. The whole auditorium is included in the design with stings of lightbulbs stretched everywhere and colourful political slogans, flags and posters of Fela on all the auditorium's walls giving a real sensurround experience of colour - it certainly made for a great experience walking in off the Snowmageddon streets of NY!

There must also be special mention of Robert Wierzel's lighting design as well as the important contribution of Cookie Jordan's wig, hair and make-up designs.
Another thing - all the shows we saw were also available at the TKTS half-price booth but FELA!'s auditorium was the one with the most empty seats - indeed in the interval the house manager invited us to move down to the second row of the circle from where we were further back. Now this is probably attributable to the snowy weather on the night but later in the week I was also aware of hawkers on Times Square offering big discounts on tickets to the show.

Michael Riedel, the theatre gossip columnist of the New York Post might be a bit of an irritating bugger - just ask Boy George, Bernadette Peters or David Leveaux who actually threw a punch at him for bitchy things he said in his column - but he might be onto something about this show.

In FELA!'s move from off-Broadway to the Eugene O'Neill it attracted Jay-Z and Will Smith & Jada Pinkett to come on board as co-producers - indeed their names are as big in the credits as the director and writer.

Riedel has constantly upbraided them for their less-than-noticeable promotion of the show citing celebrity producers such as Oprah Winfrey and Rosie O'Donnell who, for good or not, tirelessly promote the shows they have invested in. I think he might have a point - FELA! for all it's book faults deserves as wide an audience as possible.

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