Fela! is Different Than Most Broadway Fare: Updated

May 3, 2010 at 10:09 am Leave a comment

Image: Monique Carboni

UPDATE: Fela! has been nominated for 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Also, Fela’s son Femi Kuti and his band The Positive Force will be playing Lincoln Center’s  Midsummer Night’s Swing series at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park on July 12 (tickets on sale here), Antibalas will be playing a free show this summer at Castle Clinton in Battery Park on July 22, and Nigerian drumming legend Tony Allen, who was a drummer with Fela in the ’70s, will be playing a free show in the Stuy Town oval on June 16 and as part of the BAM MetroTech Rhythm & Blues Festival on June 17 (also free).

TNJ is definitely not a theater blog, but Fela! is definitely not like most theater. And, because it is a biopic of famous Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, has the Brooklyn funk/Afrobeat band Antibalas playing the role of Nigeria ’70, Fela’s backing band throughout the seventies, and amazing music numbers, many based on Fela’s actual songs, this show clearly intersects with many people’s musical interests, including us here at TNJ!

Image: Monique Carboni

The show takes you to Fela’s famous club in Lagos, Nigeria in the seventies, called the Afrika Shrine. The Eugene O’Neill Theater has been utterly transformed to look like a hot Afro-funk club, and the set design is fascinating and educational, with portraits of African and African-American political activists, news stories, and more. Fela’s anti-colonial activist mother, Funmilayo Kuti, looks over the stage as Fela tries to come to grips with her death and whether he should leave Nigeria.

The show begins with an introduction to Fela, his club, and his amazing dancers. There is some audience involvement, as actor Sahr Ngaujah who plays Fela, tries to teach the “international” crowd call and response and how to move their hips. Because of the nightclub setting, the show can get away with song and dance numbers that do not directly tell a story or move the plot forward. Antibalas is amazing as the backing band, and Nguajah often accompanied them on the sax. The ensemble of dancers was absolutely amazing and super-talented, and their costumes were ravishing and funky. The women in the ensemble represented Fela’s 27 wives who often danced with him onstage and truly were the queens he described them as.

Image: Monique Carboni

Most of Fela’s music is sung in Pidgen English so people from all over Africa could understand it. To help the “international” audience understand it, the words to the song being sung were sometimes projected above the stage, which helped a lot. His most popular song, “Zombie,” about the state of Nigeria’s military, was a highlight, as well as “Water Get No Enemy” and any song Lillias White, who played Fela’s mother sang in, like “Trouble Sleep.”

Image via: Fela! on Broadway

If you are expecting a linear plot line or typical musical theater fare, you will be fairly shocked. Fela! is so unlike any other Broadway show I’ve seen I had to remind myself where I was several times. There is little plot, and character development, which is typical of Broadway fare, but this is simply not your typical Broadway show, so if you have that in mind you will not be disappointed. If you appreciate international music, African dance, and political activism, you will thoroughly enjoy this show. Tickets are available here at a discount for fans of Antibalas, and the soundtrack is due on June 8 via Knitting Factory Records, who have been releasing much of Fela Kuti’s catalog these last few years. The song “Everything Scatter” is available on iTunes now.

Check out this video of the cast on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in February:

Entry filed under: Concert Review, DevoLT, Jams, Music News. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

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