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25 Jan 2010

Making Music Mightier Than the Sword

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There should be dancing in the streets. When you leave the Eugene O’Neill Theater after a performance of “Fela!,” it comes as a shock that the people on the sidewalks are merely walking. Why aren’t they gyrating, swaying, vibrating, in thrall to the force field that you have been living in so ecstatically for the past couple of hours?

The hot (and seriously cool) energy that comes from the musical gospel preached by the title character of “Fela!,” which opened on Monday night, feels as if it could stretch easily to the borders of Manhattan and then across a river or two. Anyone who worried that Bill T. Jones’s singular, sensational show might lose its mojo in transferring to Broadway can relax.

True, this kinetic portrait of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, a Nigerian revolutionary of song, has taken on some starry producers — including Shawn Carter (Jay-Z) and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith — and shed 15 or 20 minutes since it was staged Off Broadway last year. But it has also acquired greater focus, clarity and intensity. In a season dominated by musical retreads and revivals, “Fela!,” which stars the excellent Sahr Ngaujah and Kevin Mambo (alternating in the title role), throbs with a stirring newness that is not to be confused with novelty.

For there has never been anything on Broadway like this production, which traces the life of Fela Kuti (1938-97) through the prism of the Shrine, the Lagos nightclub where Fela (pronounced FAY-lah) reigned not only as a performer of his incendiary songs (which make up most of the score) but also as the self-proclaimed president of his own autonomous republic.

As brought to the stage by Mr. Jones — the show’s venturesome choreographer, director and, with Jim Lewis, its book writer — “Fela!” doesn’t so much tell a story as soak an audience to and through the skin with the musical style and sensibility practiced by its leading man. That style is Afrobeat, an amalgam of diverse cultural elements that will be parsed and reassembled during the show by its performers and the wonderful Antibalas, an Afrobeat band out of Brooklyn.

Irresistible music is always more than its individual parts, though. The sum of them here captures the spirit of rebellion — against repression, inhibition and conformity — that dwells within all of us, but which most of us have repressed by early middle age. It has been surfacing in wave after wave of jazz, funk and rock ’n’ roll since the 1920s. And it has been translated into smooth Broadway-ese over the years, in shows about restless youth like “Hair,” “West Side Story” and even “Bye Bye Birdie,” all currently in revival.

The form that spirit took in popular music in Nigeria in the 1970s, though, was more visceral and more far-reaching than anything Broadway gave birth to. That was when Fela was at the height of his popularity as a recording star and political agitator who understandably frightened the Nigerian military dictatorship. It wasn’t just what Fela said about a country broken by corruption and oppression. It was how his music said it.

The astonishment of “Fela!” is that it transmits the force of this musical language in ways that let us feel what it came out of and how it traveled through a population. When you arrive at the theater, just look at the stage — transformed into an eye-awakening, graffiti-decorated shrine by Marina Draghici (who also did the celebratory costumes) — and you’ll see the source of that pulse: it’s in the bodacious, miniskirted hips that can be tantalizingly glimpsed swaying in and out from the stage’s wings.

As choreographed by Mr. Jones, an eminence of contemporary dance who won a Tony for his work on “Spring Awakening,” “Fela!” leads with its hips. Its star, who makes his entrance through the aisles amid a human locomotive of shoulder-rolling men, identifies that pelvic motion as “nyansh,” what you hear — and feel — in the bass.

Nyansh is Afrobeat’s foundation, over which are layered elements explained in a number called “B.I.D. (Breaking It Down),” which traces the musical education of Fela from his youth in Lagos (where highlife jazz dominated) to his student days in London (where he listened to John Coltrane and Frank Sinatra). Somewhere along the way, the sounds of Chano Pozo and James Brown entered his aural landscape, and Fela heard a synthesis that he believed would change not only his life but all of Africa.

The show covers a lot of biographical territory, ranging through the United States as well as Africa, though with far less strain than in its Off Broadway incarnation. Set in the Shrine on the eve of Fela’s planned departure from Nigeria, months after a violent government raid on his compound that left many of his followers wounded and his beloved mother dead, the production shifts between past and present via an assortment of sophisticated theatrical tools (including magical lighting by Robert Wierzel and video design by Peter Nigrini, with top-grade wrap-around sound by Robert Kaplowitz).

But it’s the music and the movement that tell us most about the man and his world. “Fela!” never stops dancing, and Mr. Jones uses his ravishing ensemble to evoke everything from joyous sensuality to the kind of governmental oppression that turns people into zombies. Both actors portraying the pot-smoking, sax-tooting Fela lead their ensemble, which winds up including us, with charismatic authority.

Mr. Ngaujah, who originated the role and now appears in it five times a week, has an insolent, instinctive majesty that feels utterly organic, as if it’s been conjured by the music itself. Mr. Mambo wears his pain, his rage and his humor closer to the surface; he’s a slightly less compelling musical presence, but a more lucid storyteller.

As commanding as both these men are — and as spirited as the male dancers (including the brilliant, sui-generis tap artist Gelan Lambert) are — it’s the women who ultimately rule this universe. Saycon Sengbloh shimmers as the seductress who introduces Fela to Marx and the American black-power movement.

And Lillias White plays Funmilayo, the government-baiting feminist who was Fela’s mother and whose ancestral spirit haunts her son. As anyone who saw her in “The Life” knows, Ms. White’s voice can penetrate the heavens, so it seems perfectly plausible that Funmilayo could become the goddess that Fela visits in the afterlife, in the show’s most elaborately conceived and fantastical sequence.

But the heart, soul and pelvis of “Fela!” are located most completely in the phalanx of female dancers (I counted nine, but they feel legion) who stand in for the 27 women Fela married. Fela called these beauties his queens, and they are hardly your traditional chorus line.

Imperial and exquisitely self-contained, these women never sell themselves with the smiling avidity you’re used to from Broadway dancers. They don’t need to. Their concentrated magnetism draws you right to their sides, whether they’re parading among the audience or wriggling onstage.

By the end of this transporting production, you feel you have been dancing with the stars. And I mean astral bodies, not dime-a-dozen celebrities.


Directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones; book by Jim Lewis and Mr. Jones; music and lyrics by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti; additional lyrics by Mr. Lewis; additional music by Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean; conceived by Mr. Jones, Mr. Lewis and Stephen Hendel, based on the life of Fela; music director/supervisor, orchestrations and arrangements by Mr. Johnson; sets and costumes by Marina Draghici; lighting by Robert Wierzel; sound by Robert Kaplowitz; projections by Peter Nigrini; wig, hair and makeup design by Cookie Jordan; music coordinator, Michael Keller; associate producer, Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson; associate musical director/arranger, Mr. McLean; music consultant, Antibalas; associate director, Niegel Smith; associate choreographer, Maija Garcia. Presented by Shawn (Jay-Z) Carter, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, Ruth and Stephen Hendel, Roy Gabay, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Edward Tyler Nahem, Slava Smolokowski, Chip Meyrelles/Ken Greiner, Douglas G. Smith, Steve Semlitz/Cathy Glaser, Daryl Roth/True Love Productions, Susan Dietz/Mort Swinsky and Knitting Factory Entertainment. At the Eugene O’Neill Theater, 230 West 49th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.

WITH: Sahr Ngaujah and Kevin Mambo (alternating as Fela Anikulapo-Kuti), Lillias White (Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti), Saycon Sengbloh (Sandra Isadore), Ismael Kouyaté (Ismael/Geraldo Piño/Orisha/Ensemble) and Gelan Lambert (J. K. Braiman/Tap Dancer/Egungun/Ensemble).

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