Only one show can say that it is backed by such celebrities as Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett Smith. Only one show can say that masterminds Bill T. Jones, Jim Lewis, and Stephen Hendel are responsible for its creation. Only one show tells the tale of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti through his very own music. Only one show is back for a strictly limited run this summer at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. Only one show will ever be Fela! – the afrobeat musical that has the audience laughing, cheering, crying, and all around surrounded with the culture of Lagos, Nigeria.
Fela Anikulapo-Kuti might not be a house hold name to the younger generations, but his passion, music, and life influenced a generation not to long ago. From the first note, the audience is transported to the Shrine, a famous concert venue in Lagos, where Fela is playing his final performance. Distraught by the recent death of his mother caused by the government, Fela has decided that it is time to leave Nigeria for good; he can no longer help a nation that does not recognize that it is in turmoil. It is not long into the concert, however, that he begins to take a look back at his life – from his studies in London to his mega hit song Zombie to the raid of his home. As Fela takes this journey, the audience is taken with him as he begins to realize that Nigeria is his home.
Depending on the night, the star of the show will either be Sahr Ngaujah (Tony and Oliver Award nominee for Fela!) or Adesola Osakalumi (Equus); on opening night, Mr. Osakalumi was front and center as Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Osakalumi carried the show with wit, charm, and an energy that was larger than life. Not only can he act and sing, Osakalumi does it all while playing the sax! Fela is a man with strong emotions and over the top ideas. Osakalumi takes control of this piece from start to finish and beautifully brigs this activist and music legend to life. Surrounding him is an ensemble full of talent. This ensemble barley catches a break as they move from one intense dance number to the next. With soulful voices and crazy dance chops, the ensemble of Fela! kills it! While Fela is a strong, independent man (who does happen to marry 15 women at once), there are two stand out women figures in his life: his mother Funmilayo (portrayed by Melanie Marshall – West End’s Fame) and American activist Sandra (portrayed by Paulette Ivory – West End’s The Lion King). Both women have strong, powerful voices that fill the stage and take control of their songs. While both might lack some energy compared to Osakalumi, it feels more like a flaw in the script, rather than a flaw in the actresses. In the end, both women beautifully join forces with Osakalumi and the high energy ensemble to create the world of Fela.
While Fela! tends to run a bit long (the likes of Les Miserables – it is great, but could be shorter), it is a visual feast for the senses. Director and choreographer Bill T. Jones assembled the best of the best to create the world of Lagos, Nigeria. Marina Draghici (Shakespeare in the Park’s Mother Courage) takes the reins as scenic and costume designer. Using bright, vibrant colors and unique, interesting textures, Draghici fuses the worlds of design together creating a world that is energetic and full of life. Adding to the design is the work of lighting designer Robert Wierzel (David Copperfield’s Dreams and Nightmares) who uses a fuse of concert and theatrical lighting to blend the world of the Shrine and Nigeria. The visual feast is completed with the stunning projection design work of Peter Nigrini (9 to 5: The Musical). Nigrini’s work transports the audience from Nigeria to London and back again; it is absolutely stunning work! The scene staler of the show is the movement from Bill T. Jones (choreographer for Spring Awakening). The intense dance routines are rich in culture and high in energy; they electrify the entire audience – who is even called to get off their feet and learn a few moves themselves! While the book has a few faults – feeling scattered at times and dropping a few characters, the performers more than cover it up, making this an astonishing piece of theatre!
The national tour of Fela! has made a pit stop in the Big Apple once more! Filled with fun afrobeat music, humor, drama, wonderful design, and awe inspiring performances, this innovative piece of theatre is sure to entertain! As an audience member yelled out on opening night, “Welcome back Fela! Welcome back!” Now, everyone say, “Yeh! Yeh!”