Friday, November 19, 2010

For the second time this year a show has arrived in London I had seen on our NY trip in February: first was Diane Paulus' glorious production of HAIR and now we have Bill T. Jones' equally big 'n' colourful production FELA! I can't think what is keeping Bartlett Sher's SOUTH PACIFIC - NEXT TO NORMAL however can stay in the Booth Theatre where it belongs.

As is the case with HAIR, I enjoyed the London FELA! much more, with both shows I think I was too busy reacting to the show first time round than actually taking them in fully.

What lives in the memory of the NY version was that we saw it on the night of Snowmageddon when Manhattan was hit by a huge blizzard. It was such a sensory experience to step from the wintry streets into the colourful, vibrant auditorium recreating Fela Kuti's Lagos Shrine club - also it was a pleasure to FINALLY have friendly front-of-house staff, namely the bar girl who happily informed us we could take our drinks to our seats with "we're a party house here!"Re-reading my February blog - here it is - I find that what I didn't like about the show then still applies now. No amount of deliriously exciting choreography or hypnotic Afrobeat beats can disguise the frustratingly thin book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones.

Despite vignettes in the first act about Fela's musical education which led to his developing the Afrobeat sound and his political education bizarrely courtesy of the Black Panthers while visiting America, the second act - despite one stunning coup-de-theatre which brought shocked gasps and exclamations from the rapt audience - meanders around before getting completely lost up it's own yanch via an extended dream ballet of Fela visiting the underworld which sadly only made me think of a "Talk Of The Town" floorshow routine with it's ultra-violet lighting and projections on a scrim. The book keeps Fela's actual political manifesto unknown, just that he was against the corrupt government, and his death from AIDS in 1997 is glossed over.What is undeniable however is the burning intensity of Sahr Ngaujah's performance as Fela, effortless charisma added to a natural ability to handle the more excitable members of the peanut gallery. It might not be the most sympathetic performance - Fela is a difficult character to empathise with - but Ngaujah's Tony-nominated performance makes you realise how Kuti could galvanise an audience. Hell, he even got all the Olivier audience up to dance about 20 minutes into the show!

The two main supporting roles of Fela's activist mother Funmilayo and his American mentor Sandra Izadore are played by Melanie Marshall and Paulette Ivory. Both are blessed with great voices and Marshall in particular is a joy to hear. Again however it is typical of this show that her big second act number - the only song written specifically for the show - is totally shapeless and meanders on interminably.As before, these three performances are supported by a phenomenal company of dancers who are worth the price of admission alone. As I said about the NY production, their wild, frantic and totally thrilling abandon is of course the result of the strictest discipline and for all the problems with the book, one wishes that Bill T. Jones just settled on the music and dancers telling Fela's story.

The Olivier is unrecognizable due to Marina Draghici's fabulous stage design which spreads out into the auditorium with huge colourful posters, paintings and strings of lights covering the walls and doors recreating the feel of Fela Kuti's Shrine club in his Kalakuti compound. Why has no designer ever done this before with this unique space? Robert Wierzel's lighting is also a major component for the show's overall success.A special mention too must go to the magnificent onstage band of 12 musicians who are the show's engine and keep the music coming with a richness of sound that is genuinely exciting.

So for all the problems mentioned with the non-existent book I would still recommend FELA! as a rare achievement in pure theatre.

"Say Yea-Yea!"

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