Fela! (The SOB Review) - Eugene O'Neill Theatre, New York, NYFela! (The SOB Review) - Eugene O'Neill Theatre, New York, New York
***1/2 (out of ****)
Almost as audaciously as the late Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer and political activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti declared his commune as the Kalakuta Republic, Bill T. Jones' Fela! dares to dream its own stylized mantle of "most original new musical on Broadway."
The verdict? I'd be hard pressed not to say yeah-yeah!
It's exactly that and so much more, empowering Fela! to stake its rightful claim without being excessively hyperbolic. Infused with the rascally Kuti's radicalism and rhythms, this revolutionary tuner is almost all originality, with little artificiality.
Now that I have your attention, let me explain.
In what has to be the most transcendent musical to descend upon a Broadway stage in years, Fela! envelopes the senses as soon as you walk into the Eugene O'Neill. The theatre has been transformed by Marina Draghici's overflowing scenic design into Kuti's nightclub Shrine. Kuti's own music is already funking up the place so vitally (compliments Aaron Johnson's taut musical direction) that it's hard to resist tapping your toes the moment you arrive.
Surely, this is what director and choreographer Jones intends. For Fela! is clearly a labor of love, and it shows in this most unusual of jukebox musicals that simply defies description and exceeds all expecations.
In co-writing its book with Jim Lewis, Jones has conceived a living, breathing, pulsating and truly magical musical monument to a man most in America may never have heard of. In telling Kuti's story and showcasing his infectious music, it's a tribute to Jones that he makes us feel Fela! so deeply.
While enjoying what seems to be a pre-show jam-session playing Afrobeat music, lithe dancers begin to assemble, both in the audience and on-stage in a jubilantly choreographed celebration that's a joy to behold. In fact, Jones may as well start making room now for the Tony he'll likely receive for a second and infinitely more deserving choreography honor. Before you know it, there's a full-fledged concert party taking place with Kuti himself in control (the role of Fela Kuti alternates performances between Sahr Ngaujah and Kevin Mambo; the mesmerizing Mambo performed the afternoon I attended).
But this isn't a mere concert staging. Kuti reveals that this is his final time performing in the Shrine. As he looks to an image of his beloved murdered mother Funmilayo (a haunting, stirring Lillias White), she returns to life via Peter Nigrini's stunning projection design (one, I might add, that makes the best case yet for a new Tony category). Without missing one single Afrobeat, Fela! morphs into the story of Kuti's life.
During a late-sixties stay in the United States, Kuti finds himself under the influence of the enchanting Sandra (a terrific, if underutilized Saycon Sengbloh), who personifies the fusion of American funk and Black Panther politics that would propel him forward in Nigeria. Once Kuti's returned home, his music emboldens him to challenge the Nigerian government's corrupt regime.
Through his music that at once stirs and incites, Kuti becomes an oft-arrested and tortured hero to Nigeria's poor. As his quixotic run for the presidency suggests, he rebounds from each confrontation with the law seemingly stronger and even more willing to take on all comers including big corporations that fund his government's wicked ways and the West for its complicity.
If Fela! becomes a bit preachy at times, it succeeds in narrowly avoiding a completely hagiographic depiction of Kuti by taking copious note of his affinity for weed and women (he had 27 wives in all). Yet in the show's rousing finale in which the myriad afflications devastating the African continent are symbolically laid to rest, Jones only alludes to the deadly disease that would take Kuti's life in 1997. While the scene is chilling and even uplifting, it represents a missed opportunity to truly triumph with maximum impact.
Nevertheless, Fela! is one of the most compelling and affecting musicals you're likely to see this or any other year. As an equally entertaining piece of musical theatre, I can't fail to strongly recommend this captivating and worthy show. Long live Fela!
This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).