An Exuberant, Joyous Experience
By R. J. Donovan
"Fela!" comes barreling at you like a exhilarating explosion of light, music and dance.
At the Cutler Majestic, "Fela!" tells the story of Fela Kuti, Nigerian musician, singer, political activist and originator of the Afrobeat sound. His goal was to change the world. The setting is a 1978 performance at Africa Shrine, Fela's club. His last performance, he tells us. And we are the viewers, both of the play and of the concert within the show. As a result, there's interaction throughout the evening. Fela speaks directly to us, and the audience (sometimes quick vocally) speaks right back. The effect is electrifying. As is Sahr Ngaujah as Fela.
Ngaujah originated the role of Fela in New York, and it's hard imagining anyone else who might be up to the task. How this irresistible talent didn't walk away with a Tony Award is a puzzle. (Douglas Hodge snapped up the award for "La Cage aux Folles" that season.) Ngaujah's not only onstage for pretty much the full two and a half hours, he sings, he dances, he struts, he plays the saxophone, he's passionate, and he's quite funny -- all of it in a gripping, dynamic, sensual performance that's so real you believe he is Fela.
As the notes for the show point out, Fela "used his big band music as a medium in which he created biting, satirical diatribes against the excess of successful military regimes in Nigeria. Any form of injustice, oppression, mismanagement, corruption was fearlessly and ferociously attacked, using eloquent harangues that specifically named the perpetrators. Fela paid a steep price for his bravery in the face of powerful and implacable enemies, with 200 arrests and countless beatings that left scars all over his body. But even those beatings didn't stop him."
With a fiery personality, he became a cult figure. He recorded almost 50 albums, and when he died, one million people attended his funeral.
Through his music, Fela tells us how he began his career, what he discovered when he traveled to Los Angeles, indelible the influence his Mother provided for both his life and his work, and how the military tried again and again to slap him down as he spoke out against the dictatorship government.
In "Fela!," the musicians slowly gather on stage and begin playing while the houselights are still up in the theater. This helps set the stage, so to speak, for us being in the club. To say the music is pounding is an understatement. (The bass was so pronounced that I could feel my Playbill vibrating with every note.)
While the show is loud and exuberant throughout, the most powerful moment in the show is accompanied by absolute silence. Near the end of the second act, we learn how hundreds of soldiers stormed Fela's home, brutally beating and torturing him, his mother and his many wives. Throughout the sequence, mugshots of the victims are silently projected against the back wall of the set, accompanied by a typewritten description detailing the brutality each suffered. The effect draws an audible gasp from the audience.
The musicians are top rate as is the company of singers and dancers who help tell Fela tell his tale. Special note goes to Paulette Ivory as Sandra and Gelan Lambert as a tap-dancing dynamo. As Funmilayo, Fela's Mother (who also raged against the government), Melanie Marshall has a voice that fills the theater with power and emotion. In the second act she delivers the afterlife aria, "Rain," to thunderous applause.
The production was conceived by Stephen Hendel, Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, who also serves as choreographer and director. The book is by Lewis and Jones. The music is Fela's own. The look of the show adds tremendously to the experience. So added applause go to Marina Draghici for the colorful costumes and authentic set design, Robert Wierzel for the lighting design that paints the stage in color, and Peter Nigrini for the outstanding projections.
"Fela!" is a true "must-see"experience.
"Fela!" is at the Cutler Majestic Theatre through May 6. For information, call 617-824-8000.
-- Production Photos: Monique Carboni
-- OnStage Boston
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