In my old age I have become allergic to musicals aimed at people under 13 (most musicals nowadays), musicals based on movies and book musicals based on someone's greatest hits. In the latter category, I did find MAMMA MIA enjoyable and even witty in its self-reflexive shoehorning of ABBA songs into the paper thin book. Even though The Four Seasons were part of my growing up, I thought JERSEY BOYS verged on dull. Needless to say, I went to FELA, now in previews at the Royal National Theatre, with some trepidation. I came out thrilled.
The production has two stars, both brilliant artists. The first is Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the inventor of what became known as Afropop. In terms of popular music, Fela is one of the most mportant figures of the late twentieth-century. He created a unique sound, a fusion of African, jazz, rock, and Latin-American music. It is complex and highly infectious. He would be an important figure in any context, but he was also something of a political hero, using his music to protest the corruption of post-colonial Nigeria. He and his family and cohorts paid a high price for his daring. He was arrested many times and his mother was murdered in a brutal government attack on his compound. Yet, though he was world famous, Fela stayed in Nigeria. The troubled country was his inspiration. The musical is as much about political commitment as it is about Fela's music.
What the show leaves out are Fela's troublesome, to put it mildly, sexual politics. The man exemplified the worst of African misogyny and homophobia. His marriage to twenty-seven women might be considered a statement of sexual liberation were it not for his refusal to wear condoms ("un-African") which led to his spreading his HIV virus (he died of AIDS). Then there's the nasty verbal gay bashing expressed in his lyrics (not used in the show, of course). So this cultural hero had clay feet. The musical gives us a hero and a martyr. The real man was not so nice. It is necessary to see the Fela the musical offers as a fictional creation based on the real person, but isn't that always true of biographical plays and musicals?
The conceit of this show, conceived by Bill T. Jones, Jim Lewis (who wrote the book) and Stephen Hendel, is that it is the last night in Fela's Lagos nightclub, The Shrine, which was destroyed by government police. During the course of the show, Fela tells his life story and performs his music. The conceit sounds simple and all-too familiar. However, Bill T. Jones has turned Fela's story into a celebration of his music through dance. An ensemble of two dozen brilliant performers enthrall the audience in their tireless performance of Jones's brilliant choreography. They're everywhere in the theater -- and I must say Jones uses every inch of space in the Olivier Theatre. I know this is a very different space than the conventional Broadway theater, but Jones has used it better than any director I have experienced. Not only are the dancers everywhere, but there are projections and constantly changing patterns of light everywhere. This is very much a multi-media show.The costumes are gorgeous -- and there are a lot of costume changes. The show gets more spectacular as it progresses. I can't remember being so impressed by all the elements of a visual production.
One can't say enough about the dancers who barely stop for almost three hours. Or about the terrific twelve piece band, which plays from the time the house opens until the end of the show. We saw the alternate Fela, Rolan Bell. He was fine. It was a preview and he's new to the role (the other Fela played it on Broadway). I didn't feel it was quite under his skin yet. I'd like to go back and see it with Sahr Nagaujah in order to compare. I want to go back anyway.
I can't believe that FELA is only at the National for a limited run. There must be plans for a transfer if the British critics appreciate the show. One never knows over here how American musicals will fare. RENT and SPRING AWAKENING, two superb musicals, flopped in London while fluff like LEGALLY BLONDE is a hit. This production was created for the Olivier and it is hard to imagine it anywhere else.
One seldom sees standing ovations at the staid National Theater and I must say I hope England does not go the route of America where everything gets a standing ovation, thus rendering the gesture meaningless. however FELA got one last night and it was richly deserved.
FELA. Royal National Theatre. November 11, 2010.