Okay, hear me out. I know this isn’t the sort of thing we post about on this board, but on Friday I saw Fela! at the Ahamanson Theatre in LA and what I thought would be a fun evening with some good music and sexy “tribal” dancing turned out to be one of the most thrilling theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. And more relevant to this board, I think it’s a show that will have enormous appeal to many of you – even those of you who never go to the theatre.
In case you’re not familiar, Fela! is a Broadway musical (wait! don’t leave yet!) about the life and music of the great Fela Kuti, the godfather of Afrobeat. As a fan of Fela Kuti’s music, I went into this production with some trepidation about what Broadway folk would do to his music; I thought it might get too... polished. But they didn’t Disney-fy, or Cirque-du-Soleil, or even Broadway-fy Fela’s music. In fact, the show originated Off-Broadway and it still retains some of that grungy downtown charm. The music is played by a magnificent, red-hot 10-piece on stage band made up of members of Antibalas, one of the biggest names in Afrobeat music these days (I think they played Coachella a few years ago.)
The whole thing is directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, one of the great living geniuses of modern dance. He and his design team have infused Fela’s music with a theatricality that tells his life story and speaks to his political and social work without ever getting didactic. The lighting and projections are just stunning and somehow never overpower or overwhelm Fela’s music. The ensemble is made up of dancer/singers from all over the world. They’re truly astonishing. They sing beautifully and evocatively and authentically (no Broadway style belters). They dance Jones’ inventive choreography with a joyous fervor and charged eroticism you rarely see in your average musical. They're also beautiful to look at. You'll feel a little self-conscious about your body after watching them gyrate all night!
Sahr Ngaujah, the original Fela Kuti from Broadway, is back playing Fela here and the man is a revelation. He strikingly resembles Kuti, but his performance is not an imitation or an act of mimicry, but rather a theatrical tribute to the man. He’s so passionate and energetic. He has this raw physicality and this amazing (sometimes imposing) physical presence. He sings, dances, plays the sax and guides us through the 3 hour show.
Melanie Marshall plays his mother and though it’s clearly a supporting role, she almost steals the whole damn show with her singing. I’ve never heard a voice like hers. Like some heavenly mix of Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson and Leontyne Price. She manages to sing operatically and soulfully (and I mean SOULFULLY) at the same time. The audience was cheering after every number in the show, but after her first number, instead of cheers you heard gasps. Literal gasps because people couldn’t believe such an otherworldly sound was coming out of a human being.
It’s only playing LA for one more week. Then, the tour continues across the US. Trust me. This is not just a concert, and it’s certainly not some bullshit musical like Wicked or Rent. I see now why Fela’s sons, Femi and Seun, have supported this show. There will never be anything like this again. If it’s playing nearby, go see it. Here’s what Bill T. Jones did with "Zombie"…
Tour dates, tickets etc: http://www.felaonbroadway.com/