Thursday, September 11, 2008

Fela! A New Musical

In spite of having an uninspiring title (does anyone put an exclamation point in a title anymore without intending it to be a joke?), Fela! is quite probably the best production I've seen onstage this year. It's absolutely beautiful in every way, with fantastic music, an amazing performance by Sahr Ngaujah in the title role, a creatively designed environment and incredible dance numbers from an extremely talented ensemble.

I was not familiar with Fela Kuti, the Nigerian-born musician and composer who pioneered Afrobeat, but within moments of entering the theater (the house opened with the band already playing onstage and they continue right up until the lights change for the top of the show), I recognized his influence on Western popular music, especially some of the more recent work by David Byrne and Paul Simon. The context for the piece is a final concert at the Shrine, a nightclub Fela created, before he leaves Nigeria; this allows the creators, Jim Lewis and director/choreographer Bill T. Jones, to make Fela's music the driving force of the evening. This conceit works so well because his compositions were so often a direct response to events in Fela's life and the world in which he lived—a world that we watch grow increasingly more violent and more oppressive over the course of the evening. It's powerful music that drives home its message without every sacrificing its artfulness.

The design for the production is exceptionally rich: it's total theater, with every possible wall and surface in the theater covered with graffiti and used for projections throughout the performance. It evokes the Shrine nightclub and the streets of Nigeria (as well as a 300-seat theater in NYC can), and even manages to cleverly reveal a few secrets during the evening. The video projections are very well done and effectively used to augment information that emerges during the play and the costumes are fun, sexy and brilliantly colorful.

The dance is, of course, phenomenal: athletic, sensuous and wonderfully executed. Jones' choreography is intensely physical—Fela! is easily the sweatiest show I'll see this year—and the dancers here are all marvelous. Abena Koomson, as Fela's mother, has a beautiful, clear voice and brings great passion to the songs she sings. And, of course, Ngaujah is the key to the success of this show: as Fela, he sings, dances, jokes with and cajoles the audience, and plays both saxophone and trumpet—all masterfully and with a natural effortlessness (or at least the appeance of it) that is truly awe-inspiring. It's certainly the most impressive performance by an actor I've seen in recent years.

In a season that promises only more revivals and empty-headed retreads (9 to 5: The Musical?), Fela! is that rare original work that is not only an exceptional theatrical experience: it's an immensely enjoyable evening out. I can't recommend it highly enough.

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