Broadway Fela! Revolution
BROADWAY MAGAZINE –At first blush, the show Fela! may appear to fall into that Broadway genre known as a Juke Box Musical. Like Jersey Boys or Lennon, the show combines the existing music catalogue of a recording artist with their life story to create a theatrical biography of sorts. However, the new musical Fela! is closer to Aeschylus than ABBA’s Mamma Mia! The key difference here is the subject itself. While Afrobeat artist Kela Anikulapo-Kuti has a following, his reach is hardly pervasive. That could well change with the arrival of Fela! on Broadway.
In any society, the Nigerian musician and political activist would be a fascinating subject for a show. Jailed over 200 times, married to 27 women at once, persecuted and praised for his ability to use his art to fight against government corruption, and resilient enough to survive physical attacks to himself and those he loved, including the death of his mother—Fela! makes Jersey Boys look like choir boys. With a book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, Fela! entertains, amuses, shocks, and inspires. While some of the more complicated elements of Fela’s life seem to get glossed over (27 wives and the love of “igbo”), the theme that is most resonate is the artist’s ability, and necessity, to fight against the forces of corruption, even to the death. It is a simple idea, but in the transformative experience that is Fela! this idea truly takes on an inspirational dimension. This is true because, for both Fela the Artist and Fela! the musical, the music is the message…and oh what music it is!
The Afrobeat songs of Fela Kuti flow seamlessly into the narrative, and are complimented by the free-spirited and exuberant choreography of Bill T. Jones. Though the musical deals with dark subject matter, and takes you beyond Death’s door, at the end Fela! is a Broadway joy machine that welcomes and challenges an audience, but always remains true to the line Fela delivers to the audience early in the show (to paraphrase): “We’re here for your enjoyment and for our enjoyment.”
As played by Kevin Mambo (there are rotating Fela leads), the above lines were delivered without a smile or a wink. Mambo’s portrayal is tough and entertaining, both welcoming and mildly confrontational. He’ll get you up on your feet, but you’ll never be made to feel foolish. The rest of the cast is equally solid and very inch an ensemble in perfect sync. Lillias White as Fela’s mother is remarkably powerful.
Though an effort is made in the production to draw parallels between Kuti’s corrupt Africa and modern day America, those attempts seem thin and half-hearted at best as they target comfortable villains like Haliburton or AIG, while ignoring the healthcare industry’s direct attack on healthcare reform, or the Auto industry, or financial service companies who benefitted from government bail-outs. The more obvious modern political attacks are the weakest element of the musical.
What is most resonate is the real life Fela Kuti’s skill to communicate revolutionary messages without the overt attacks that are common in today’s public discourse. A song like “Zombie” with its simple lyrics never names names, and yet everyone knows the message he is sending. Likewise the message in song’s like “Trouble Sleep” or “Coffin For The Head Of State” reverberate not because they are tied to the time in which they were written (though that is also true), but because they apply across all cultures and societies. One leaves the theatre admiring not only the real-life artistry and skill of Fela to invent a new form of music and use it to wage war against a corrupt government, but also in awe of the theatrical genius involved in bringing this dynamic figure to the Broadway stage. In the parlance of the Shrine where there musical Fela! is set—”ya ya.”
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