Fela! Occupies The Hirschfeld

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When the original Broadway production of Fela! closed in January of 2011, Zuccotti Park was little more than a block-long plaza where Wall Streeters would enjoy a bit of lunchtime sun.  For now, at least, the park has pretty much returned to that status, aside from the tourists taking photos of themselves at the spot now famous for birthing the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Perhaps the still-simmering issues behind that movement would help fuel a heightened interest in the temporary summer return of the docu-musical inspired by the life of Nigerian political activist and musical revolutionary Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.  If not, then certainly the non-stop exuberance and nearly non-stop joy (only halted for belly punches of reality) of Bill T. Jones’ exhilarating production are enough to pack ‘em into the Hirschfeld.

Born in 1938 with a Christian minister for a father and a mother who was a leader in Nigeria's anti-colonial women's movement, Fela was sent to London for an education in medicine, but was sidetracked by an interest in music; his first influences being Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra. Fusing the jazz and pop styles he heard in London with the rhythms and chants of his homeland's Yoruba and high life, he created the Afrobeat sound and began touring and recording with his band, Koola Lobitos. Influenced by the 1960's Black Power movement through the writings of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver, his lyrics began taking swipes at Nigeria's military government in songs like "Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense" ("Who is the government's teacher? / Corruption and perdition.") and "Zombie" ("Zombie no go think unless you tell him to think."), the song that infuriated the state so much with its depiction of the military that it led to his brutal beating (one of many he endured along with his over 200 arrests) and a fatal attack on his mother, Funmilayo.

Director/choreographer/co-bookwriter Jones and co-bookwriter Jim Lewis establish a performance-within-a-performance structure that sets the piece at the artist's regular haunt, a nightclub he named The Afrika Shrine, at a 1977 farewell concert given shortly after his mother's death as he prepares to exile himself to Ghana.

His onstage band is led by music director Aaron Johnson and Jones' fiercely energetic ensemble of dancers passionately undulate the erotically charged movements of nyansh.  Despite the story of oppression and bloodshed Fela! is a festival that demands to be celebratory in the face of hardship.

The focus of that festival is strikingly personified by Sahr Ngaujah (alternating performances with Adesola Osakalumi), who originated the role Off-Broadway.  Acting as host ("Everyone say yeah yeah! Yeah yeah! Feeling good tonight?") Ngaujah is hardly ever off stage and is continually the center of attention as he narrates the story of Anikulapo-Kuti's political struggle, sings, dances, delivers rimshot-worthy one-liners and even gives the audience a lesson in the proper way to move one’s hips to his music.  He is abundantly charismatic and seems to have deepened his already outstanding performance from the initial Broadway run, showing us a bruised and battered artist determined to laugh at his oppressors and combat injustice through the power of his music and lyrics.

Haunting our host throughout the evening is the memory of his mother, sung with a glistening soprano by the warmly regal Melanie Marshall.

Fela! certainly isn't meant to be a complete portrait of its title character. The action of the show takes place before the man dismissed AIDS as a myth (he eventually died from it) and his practice of polygamy (he married 27 women at once) is treated more like nightclub shtick than fact.  But the music radiates and Jones and his crew never allow Fela! to be less than visually entrancing.

While the design elements for this touring production making a brief stop in town are mostly the same as in the original Broadway production, some features have been scaled down a bit.  During the initial run, set and costume designer Marina Draghici turned the entire theatre into The Afrika Shrine with colorful murals and portraits painted on the walls.  Now the set is regulated to the stage.  The cast is dressed in an appealing mixture of traditional and 1970's contemporary. Robert Wierzel's lights are appropriately clubby and Peter Nigrini's videos nicely accent key moments.

But most importantly it’s the kinetic force of the hard-working dancers and the talented star that make Fela!’s return to Broadway worthy of celebration.

Top photo of Sahr Ngaujah and Company by Raymond Hagans; Bottom photo of Melanie Marshall and Sahr Ngaujah by Tristram Kenton.

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Posted on July 16, 2012 - by

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About the Author: After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Citi Field pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.

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