Come Worship at the Shrine: Fela!

fela-musicalIf you want of taste of what it must have felt like to attend the original Broadway production of HAIR, skip seeing its current revival and head straight to Fela!. Music, movement, drugs, sexual liberation, political protest, and the fight for human rights are all in full swing at the Eugene O'Neill Theater in a new, musical exploration of one of Africa's most daring and inspiring gadflies, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.

Born in 1938, Fela showed musical inclinations early in life. At the age of twenty he began traveling abroad, learning different ethnic styles of music that he would eventually combine with traditional African beats, obtaining international fame with an entirely new genre known today as Afrobeat. After being introduced to the American Civil Rights Movement by his second wife, Sandra Smith (now Izsadore), Fela had a political awakening that quickly found expression in his music, challenging the corrupt Nigerian government with inflammatory lyrics that made him an immediate target. Braving constant persecution, Fela's music gave courage to his countrymen while making him a worldwide legend in his own time.

On Broadway, Fela! is a happening, closer in style to a rock concert than a traditional book musical, taking place shortly after the government murder of Funmilayo, Fela's mother. After a quick introduction the narrative goes back in time, chronologically telling the story of Fela's epic journey to the present moment, where he struggles with the idea of leaving his beloved homeland of Nigeria to flee relentless persecution.

This production has no weak points. From cast to score to book to design, all pistons fire with a strong and steady rhythm relentlessly chipping away at the fundamental tools of corruption that shroud not only the Nigerian government but the entire world. Kevin Mambo (alternating with Sahr Ngaujah in the role of Fela) presents a character of unyielding spirit and impelling convictions. The majority of the piece's dialogue and musical solos fall on Mambo alone, who holds a firm yet inviting stage presence while leading his on-stage band (local group Antibalas) and a small army of dancers. Lillias White (Funmilayo) provides a powerful ancestral presence, belting out love and guidance for her son from the afterlife. The rest is an ensemble effort by the musicians, dancers, and singers who create a radiating halo of life, surrounding their rebellious leader.

Director/choreographer Bill T. Jones makes full use of the space, crafting the movement to spill out into the house, acknowledging the audience's presence not as theater patrons but rather as revelers attending a performance at The Shrine. Despite the proclivity towards chaos, Jones succeeds in harnessing a seemingly untamed energy, making decisive use of lights and projections to guide focus at moments when the visual range needs to be reined in. Marina Draghici complements Jones's direction with her stunning set and costume designs, both of which are easy picks for Tony nominations. Peter Nigrini provides the finishing touch with stellar projections that bring the dead to life and visually open the gateway to other dimensions.

Fela! offers an exciting combination of entertainment and education, illuminating the story of an important historical figure who has been sorely overlooked in the U.S. If you want to nod off while your wife gets to enjoy a pleasant night at the theater, you have plenty of options to choose from, but this musical isn't for you. However, if it's the land of the living that you seek, then Fela! is what you're looking for. - C. Jefferson Thom

Fela! is playing an open-ended run at the Eugene O'Neill Theater
230 West 49th Street, New York, NY 10038

cj_thom

Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.

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