Art Scene: Fela!

Last summer, I wrote about musical Fela! doing it's thing off-broadway and how I hoped that it would do well. Not only did it do well off-broadway, it did so well that it just had to go on broadway! With a little assistance from producers Jay-z and Will & Jada Pinkett Smith, this show is now one of the hottest tickets on broadway!

Today I have a great review by a friend, Helen, who got to see the show on Sunday and is still busting a clock dance move days later....

I first heard of Fela Anikulapo Kuti about a year ago through a friend from Cameroon, so I was beyond thrilled to see that a musical had been made about his life and music. (Unfortunately I missed Brandie's earlier post which would have let me know earlier). The first time I ever heard Fela's music it made me want to get up and dance. The same feeling came over me when I got to see the musical Fela! on Broadway last weekend. I've seen musicals before and even some on Broadway, but this show blew them all out of the water in so many ways and for me totally changed the way I thought of Broadway shows.

As I walked into the Eugene O' Neil Theater from the cold rainy New York day after staying out until 4AM (as you do in NYC) I was transported straight to Lagos by the band (Antibalas, an Afrobeat band out of Brooklyn) already on stage playing Fela songs. I knew this was going to be a unique theater experience and was not disappointed! The entire show continued with the same energy of the horns, the deep pulsing bass player, the catchy Afrobeats, and the magnetic dancing that began as you walked in and didn't stop until you ended up back outside still dancing to the beat.

The theater was transformed into something straight out of Lagos complete with African masks, art, posters of Fela, and graffiti designed to look like the "Shrine" in Nigeria where Fela used to perform. The costumes are equally awe inspiring and help to make the transformation complete. The lead character of Fela (Sahr Ngaujah) encouraged audience participation through asking the audience to say "Yea Yea", teaching the audience to practice your "clock" (telling time with your hips), and joking with the audience members. This was not a show that you sit back and watch quietly. Sahr was the ideal Fela complete with perfect Nigerian-sounding accent, mannerisms, and on top of it all, an incredibly talented saxophone player and singer!

The show was part nightclub (the Shrine), part crazy dance choreography, part Afrofunk concert, and part touching, inspiring and even heartbreaking story. It takes you through Fela's life and discovery of musical tastes, his meeting of a woman that led to his political awakening, his return to Lagos and how he became an outspoken critic of the Nigerian government through his songs. I won't ruin the ending, but you can only imagine what the government thought of people in the streets singing about the corruption of the system and the crooks in government.

Another high point of the show is Fela's mother Funmilayo (played by Lillias White). When she first came on stage and sings with the beautiful heavenly voice she has it gave me goosebumps. Fela's songs and his messages translated into something as meaningful now as it was back when Fela was alive. The production is modern and hip while still staying true to the character of Fela and the reality of Africa without falling prey to typical African stereotypes.This is a musical for Afrobeat lovers new and old and I for one hope that this show will inspire Broadway to continue to explore new characters such as the great musicians coming out of Africa.

A special thanks to Helen for a great review! I don't know about you, but this musical is definitely on my "to-see" list for my next trip to NYC!

{Photos: Global Good Partners, Diary 29, tnpv}

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