“Fela!” at Eugene O’Neill Theatre

Eugene O’Neill Theatre, NYC

The pulsing, vibrant first half of “Fela!” is one of the strongest 75 minutes on Broadway.  Upon entering the theatre, you are thrust into the hippest nightclub in Lagos. Not that Nigeria in the late 1970s known as a free wheeling center of artistic freedom, but Fela Kuti braved police oppression to sound out against the corruption suffocating his country. Nightly he held musical court at his nightclub called The Shrine, often testifying through song until the light of day, only to be met with police intervention. On Broadway, the band spread out across the back part of the stage is already in full effect, laying down a funky Afrobeat. Interweaving horns bubble across sinuous guitar lines, and the cast begins assembling. Before the lights go down, you gaze at the extended stage, agitprop artwork on most vertical surfaces and the elevated walkway above the band.

After the lights drop, the cast starts its non-stop choreography. Director and choreographer Bill T. Jones turns the dancers loose, but they are tightly rehearsed. Once the band has laid settled into its groove, Fela Kuti strides onstage, and commands your attention for the remainder of the evening.

The show would collapse without an arresting actor inhabiting the role of the title character. Two actors alternate the role; we saw Kevin Mambo and he was tremendous. Hard to believe anyone could be better, but Sahr Ngaujah has garnered a Tony nomination for his portrayal of Fela Kuti. Mambo moves with ease from lead vocals to saxophone, all the while leading the dancers in sharp moves. He accurately conveys the indignation of his character, exhorting the visitors of his club to address the problems of Nigerian society. Mambo miraculously convinces the theatre audience to stand and dance at their seats, a challenge made easier by the infectious grooves of the band.

The outfits are uniformly evocative. Kuti moves comfortably in his sansabelt slacks, the rest of the cast in colorful attire. The multiracial band cooks solidly for the entire evening. Undoubtedly Kuti’s band was not as multi-racial as that depicted on Broadway, and certainly the pivotal bassist slot was not the rather white Jeremy Wilms.

Fela Kuti’s music draws deeply on African and Cuban strains, and it would be interesting to plumb the source of James Brown’s influence on Fela Kuti, and vice versa.

The set design’s versatility expanded after the lights went down; what appeared to be portraits of Fela Kuti’s mother turned into movie screens, adding to the multi-sensory experience.

Fela Kuti was controversial no matter where you stand on the political or musical spectrum. His songs often stretch beyond the 60 minute mark. He tended to eschew playing songs live after he recorded them. He joined Bono, Santana and others as part of the 1986 Conspiracy of Hope concert at Giants Stadium in support of Amnesty International. He lived in a compound with 27 wives. Fela Kuti often baited and berated his audience. He allegedly sat in on Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run Sessions to ensure the Englishman stole none of the local musical strains before the former Beatle returned to England.

But there is no question Fela Kuti left a deep and wide legacy. Upon his death in 1997 (by complications from AIDS, unmentioned in the play) thousands marched in the streets for a 24 hour celebration of his life.

Fela! has justifiably garnered 11 Tony Award nominations, and a biopic is in the works. Fela! does a remarkable job interlacing the story of the man’s life, using his songs (with additional lyrics by Jim Lewis) in a thoroughly convincing, colorful  and satisfying way.

Visit www.felaonbroadway.com for more info.

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.