If you have ever heard and liked a jam, song, or note by Fela Kuti, you owe it to yourself to get over to 37 Arts for the off-Broadway run of Fela!
Musical theater people have a natural gift for screwing up a great story with unnecessary excess and schmaltz, but in this instance, they set their gift to the side and let the tremendous story of a tremendous giant among men do the talking. In fact, there is very little “musical theater” in this performance of musical theater. Thankfully, the man in charge of this show, Bill T. Jones, truly loves the life, legacy, and music of Fela Kuti, and this all comes out in the wonderfully thrilling work he has created.
The show envisions a fictional night inside Fela's Shrine nightclub in Lagos, and what you see is the real deal. Sahr Ngaujah *becomes* Fela Anikulapo Kuti, engaging the audience with radiant charisma that has you eating out of the palm of his bruised-but-never-broken hand. His really is an amazing and uncanny performance that sucks you in and never lets go. While essentially watching Fela and company put on a concert in his Nigerian club, the audience is both engaged and cleverly informed about the back-story of this world-renowned iconoclast, antagonist, humanitarian, artist, and spiritual leader, who was routinely tortured and jailed by a corrupt government that could never break this man’s indefatigable spirit.
The music is provided by Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, and these guys are a natural fit. In fact, they’ve rarely sounded better. For a while now, I’ve felt as though Antibalas plays best when they are pissed off. I’ve seen them give a rousing and angry performance that pumped up a genteel Shakespeare in the Park crowd, transforming the middle-aged, upper middle-class NPR-Democrats in the audience into a rabid pack of fire-breathing gargoyles who nearly destroyed the old Delacorte Theater on the cusp of the 2004 Republican Coronation of Supreme Leader and Decider, George W. Bush, and then last summer I saw Antibalas play a very pleasant show on a gorgeous, sunshine-kissed day on Governor’s Island. The former show raised some serious Hell. The latter was fun for the whole family but more than a little vacant.
Antibalas was born to play the music of Fela Kuti, and their slinking guitars, thumping bass, pounding drums, and attacking horns relish every note of these layered and meandering compositions. Fela’s lyrics are blunt but powerful, and Jones wisely projects many of them onto the backdrop, which really allows the brute force of this man’s art to sink into the deepest reaches of the brain. Visually, the entire theater is transformed into the Shrine club, and people can bring drinks to their seats. (Thank you, Musical Theater for finally waking up to this revolutionary concept; it only took you about 98 years.) Of course, I would be only telling half the story if I failed to mention the gorgeous and extremely lithe dancers (of both sexes) who sensually grind around the stage to these hypnotic compositions while showing more than a little leg. Unfortunately, there are no cold showers to be found.
This is not your normal theatrical event; it really is like a concert, and I think the show works best when people treat it as such. I don’t think I’m giving away too much when I say that at one point, the crowd gets up and dances to the music. Last night, everyone was having a great time during this sequence, but as soon as there was an opportunity to sit, 70% of the crowd dove for the seats, blowing their golden opportunity to blur the line between performer and audience. The folks in the front kept dancing, and some ridiculous old ladies tried in vain to make them sit, but the vibe was too strong and they wouldn’t acquiesce. Eventually, I said, “Fuck it,” and got up to dance in my spot, which amazingly didn’t cause a mutiny in the rows behind me. If only everyone had felt free enough to let themselves go, they would have enjoyed it oh, so much more.
I should also add that last night’s show was not without what has become a bizarre musical theater phenomenon: the union audience clap-on-every-down-beat during the curtain call. It’s like the cut-time version of a soulclap, but it sounds more like a soulless clap. I have no idea why white people do this, especially when there is incredibly funky music being played on stage. Isn’t there a way that we Caucasians can overcome our genetic deficiencies and learn to channel our inner-James Brown?
If I know my friends well enough, many will be intrigued by this review and will think “I should go see that.” Then they’ll get very lazy and never buy the tickets, waiting until the show is about to close months from now and not being able to afford the full-priced ticket. Don’t make that mistake, folks. The show is still in previews, and if you use this TheaterMania discount code, you’ll only pay $26.25. The discounted price will soon rise to $51.25, so you should get off your ass and order tickets at this bargain rate yesterday. For the record, everyone in the theater LOVED the show last night, and I expect the word-of-mouth will be tremendous. I also anticipate great reviews because not only is the show great, but I think that politically correct reviewers will be loathe to criticize it because Africa is very *in* right now, and no one wants to say something bad about a product of a continent that supplies cute little orphan babies to so many beautiful American celebrities.
In an ideal world, Fela! Will be the saving grace of the dying off-Broadway commercial scene and will run in this theater for a long time. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if it eventually makes a Broadway transfer because with some judicious cuts, it could appeal to an ever larger audience. That said, I advise you to see it now, and see it on the cheap. This is a great show for anyone who loves live music, history, or even life itself. Get your ass in the seat now…and then standup and dance!