Yesterday, in one fell swoop, the Broadway musical Fela! not only announced it would close on January 2, 2011, but that on September 14, singing legend Patti LaBelle would assume the role of Funmilayo (Fela Kuti's mother), currently played by outgoing Tony nominee Lillias White.
Evidently, the scrappy, revolutionary tuner isn't going down without a fight. The show will have played 463 regular performances by the time it closes.
What is remarkable is that for a show all about "originality," it appears to be employing one of the stage's most tried and true devices of keeping a Broadway production chugging along: stunt casting. Now before you jump all over me, keep in mind that I have long championed Fela! It was undeniably last season's most innovative, new musical, and in my opinion, the best musical of the past year.
To her credit, apart from three separate concert series through the eighties and nineties, Patti LaBelle has performed in one Broadway musical. She appeared nearly 28 years ago in the short-lived Your Arms Too Short To Box With God revival with another soul legend Al Green. In addition to appearing in several films and television shows, she's also portrayed Mama Morton in Chicago out in Los Angeles.
Also to LaBelle's enormous credit, she has graciously said this about Fela!:
After seeing the show, I was struck by the choreography and work of Bill T. Jones, and the passion and joy that overflows from the stage. Fela's mother, Funmilayo, was a strong, truly inspiring woman, and I am so privileged to be able to pay tribute to her on the Broadway stage.Indeed, she will be. But will LaBelle's new attitude be enough to keep ticket sales humming through the pipeline during the fall when so many other new shows are opening?
Let me say this, if you haven't already seen Fela!, do yourself a favor and go. You'll see why I've been saying "Yeah, yeah" since it opened last November 19.
This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).
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