Sunday, November 22, 2009

Fela! Is All About The Music, But Where's The Book?

I missed Fela! when it played at 37 Arts last year. It was always sold out when I tried to get tickets. I had heard great things about it, so I was excited about finally seeing it when it transferred to Broadway. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I was disappointed. I almost felt bad for feeling this way--was I missing something? Is this musical just too original for me? Perhaps, but I think a show needs to have somewhat of a coherent book, even an unconventional one, to work, and that was missing here, though everything else was as fantastic as promised.

Fela! essentially started when we entered the theater, transformed by Marina Draghici to look like the Shrine nightclub in Lagos. The band Antibalas was already onstage, not warming up, but playing as people found their seats. If this sounds more like Fela Kuti concert than a musical, that's exactly what the show is meant to recreate.

Photo Credit: Monique Carboni

Fela Kuti was a Nigerian musician credited with founding Afrobeat music and known for his political activism. The show takes place on an evening after the death of his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (Lillias White). In between numbers, Fela (played by Sahr Ngaujah on the evening I attended) reveals bits of historical information. It is here that the show loses its footing. It's hard to place the biographical sections in context as there is little background for when they occurred. Sandra Isadore (Saycon Sengbloh) appears as an American lover of Fela's who turns him on to the black-power movement, but her presence is so short it's hard to understand the significance.

The evening is mostly about the music, and it was a joy to be immersed in the sounds of Afrobeat, especially by such talented musicians. Ngaujah becomes Fela Kuti, which means the lyrics are hard to understand, but they are helpfully shown on a screen. If you can take your eyes off Ngaujah, the dancers are just as electric, performing Bill T. Jones' hip-swiveling choreography in Draghici's vibrant costumes. (For those weary of audience participation, be warned, you will be asked to dance along.)

After the curtain call on the night we attended, we were treated to a bonus--Bill T. Jones joined Ngaujah onstage for a dance. I left the theater feeling energized and knowing more about Fela Kuti than I had before, but wishing I had learned just a little bit more.

Note: So I don't get in trouble with the FTC, I will start noting when I was invited to a show, as was the case here.


Gil said...

I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who thought it was kind of muddled...

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