This musical/dance hybrid portrays Afrobeat originator Fela as a master entertainer and political agitator, an evening of terrific dance numbers nimbly performed and wonderful music played by first-rate musicians that ends on a suitably somber acceptance that with high flying dreams of freedom come bottom line responsibilities.
FELA! Book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones. Music and lyrics by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones. Designed by Marian Draghici. Presented by the Royal National Theatre, London, England. Taped by HD multi-camera and shown at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brookline, MA. Next screening of FELA!, January 17 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. Go here to check out other New England venues screening the production.
By Bill Marx.
The upcoming screening at the Coolidge Corner Theatre of the rousing musical/dance hybrid Fela!, winner of three 2010 Tony Awards including Best Choreography for director Bill T. Jones, is sold out. But the National Theatre production (at the Olivier) is so infectious and moving that it is worth checking (often) to see if any tickets become available.
Based on the life of the notorious Nigerian artist/activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (1938–1997) who became a political force of protest in his authoritarian country, the ambitious show draws on his massively popular Afrobeat tunes, an inventive fusion of traditional Nigerian Yoruba, jazz, funk, and R&B. His eclectic mix of dance-ready rhythms and outspoken lyrics reflect an embrace of freedom that inspired the young but fueled a series of brutal backlashes from the military-run government during the 1970s.
The musical is, at least for its first half, a somewhat conventional star bio, with Fela (played with heart-stopping charisma by Sahr Ngaujah) announcing that he is performing for the last time at his infamous club, The Shrine. Weary of the arrests and the nonstop oppression, he wants to flee his country. Fela’s politically engaged mother, speaking and singing from the spirit world, is not happy with the decision, which leads to flashbacks to Fela’s musical education in London and America (with a liberal dose of Black Power). The second half moves in a surprisingly dark direction, with acts of heinous violence leading to a dream sequence (providing the only kitschy moments in the production) in which Fela’s mother, who had been murdered by the government troops, tells him what he should do.
In an interview at the intermission of the eye-popping National Theatre production, director Bill T. Jones characterized Fela as a “sacred monster,” but there’s not much of his egomaniac nastiness or hedonistic abandon presented in the show, which shines a heroic spotlight on his struggles and appetites. His marriage to multiple women is sung about (with some ironic humor), but there is nothing about his treatment of his many children. This is the portrait of Fela as a master entertainer and scrappy political agitator, an evening of terrific dance numbers nimbly performed and wonderful music played by first-rate musicians that ends on a suitably somber acceptance that with high flying dreams of freedom come bottom line responsibilities.
Given all the visceral happenings on and off the expansive, multi-tiered Olivier stage, the NT Live cameras do their best, sometimes lingering in the wrong places, and the sound mix could be sharper—the lyrics of the tunes are often lost in the magical mayhem, at least on the speakers at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. But the enormous excitement and contagious energy of FELA! comes through; this is a rare imaginative homage to an unruly, creative legend that does its object of admiration whiz bang honor.