Tuesday, November 24, 2009



Photo by Monique Carboni
Book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones. Music and lyrics by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Choreographed and directed by Jones. Eugene O'Neill Theatre.

The wallflowers are few at Bill T. Jones' exuberant Afrobeat dance party, transferred triumpantly from last year's Off-Broadway run at 37 Arts. Critics go wild for the choreography, music, costumes and the charismatic lead performance of Sahr Nguajah (with some props for his alternate, Kevin Mambo), and most don't mind the nonlinear book or the show's political and spiritual digressions. A few naysayers, though, are left cold, and even many cheerleaders voice a big caveat: Will Broadway audiences take this blunt-smoking 1970s African revolutionary to their hearts?

The New York Times A+
(Ben Brantley) The hot (and seriously cool) energy that comes from the musical gospel preached by the title character of “Fela!”...feels as if it could stretch easily to the borders of Manhattan and then across a river or two. Anyone who worried that Bill T. Jones’s singular, sensational show might lose its mojo in transferring to Broadway can relax...It has...acquired greater focus, clarity and intensity...There has never been anything on Broadway like this production...Doesn’t so much tell a story as soak an audience to and through the skin with the musical style and sensibility practiced by its leading man...Irresistible music is always more than its individual parts, though. The sum of them here captures the spirit of rebellion — against repression, inhibition and conformity — that dwells within all of us, but which most of us have repressed by early middle age...The astonishment of “Fela!” is that it transmits the force of this musical language in ways that let us feel what it came out of and how it traveled through a population...By the end of this transporting production, you feel you have been dancing with the stars. And I mean astral bodies, not dime-a-dozen celebrities.

Time Out NY A
(David Cote) Although Jones proved in 2006’s Spring Awakening that he could play the Broadway game, adapting his modern-dance aesthetic to musical storytelling (and garnering a Tony), who knew he was this much of a showman? Working with book cowriter Jim Lewis, a fierce dancing corps and the sexy, commanding Ngaujah, Jones has orchestrated a soul-scorching mash-up of pounding African dance, political protest and intoxicating Afrobeat...Fela! is more than a musical; it’s an ecstatic phenomenon. The piece is also more than the sum of its overlapping genres: dance party, musical bioplay, agitprop rally, tribute concert.

The Faster Times A
(Jonathan Mandell) Now Fela! has opened at the Eugene O’Neill Theater, giving to those who had only heard about Fela a chance to learn as if first-hand the life of this extraordinary man and a chance to see a musical that is unlike any that has been on Broadway.Theater people like to say things like that, and of course some of the best musicals in Broadway history were unlike any that preceded them in some ways. “Fela!” is so awesomely different that even to attempt to describe it in Broadway terms risks being laughed off the Internet –“Lion King” meets “Rent”? That doesn’t contain it.

The Daily News A
(Joe Dziemianowicz) As rowdy as it is rousing...Blends irresistibly catchy music, explosive dance and a dramatic personal journey to tell the story of a songwriter and political activist who died at age 58 in 1997. Since its run at 37 Arts, writers Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, who also directed and choreographed, trimmed about 15 minutes but have kept its ferociously infectious spirit intact. And, wisely, the same dazzling actor Sahr Ngaujah, who makes a big, bold and ridiculously sexy Broadway debut as Fela (as he came to be called)..."Fela!" doesn't unfold in a neat, linear narrative. It's more freeform, like Afrobeat itself..."Fela!" is one of the most original and exciting shows to come around in a long while. It deserves its berth on Broadway — and that exclamation point.

New York Magazine A
(Dan Kois) As an evening’s entertainment, Fela! is without peer: two and a half hours of electrifying music, astonishing dancing, and virtuosic stagecraft, anchored by a star turn as charismatic, and as taxing, as I’ve ever seen on Broadway. How charismatic? Fela’s a ringmaster, a bandleader, and the cult guru of the Shrine. And how taxing? He rarely leaves the stage, singing and dancing and joking like a demon—oh, and visiting his dead mother in the underworld. It’s draining enough that two actors alternate the role.

Bloomberg News A
(John Simon) A great humane and transcendent fable come to life, with everything “fable” implies: mythic, fabulous and a supreme lesson in living, here supplied magisterially by choreographer Bill T. Jones and his star, Sahr Ngaujah...Less structured than your typical Broadway musical but surely more encompassing than most...As perfect a concert as it is a show. Then there is the dance recital. Jones, who also directed, has devised spectacular African-inspired dances that fill every centimeter of the two-tiered set, repeatedly spill into the auditorium and seem barely containable by the theater’s walls. They are performed by 20 dynamic, amazingly athletic dancers, among whom I found Nicole Chantal de Weever outstanding for innate talent, ample ballet training and sheer beauty...But the great overarching and overwhelming performance is that of Ngaujah...He transmutes a 1,200- seat house into an intimate cabaret as he elicits vocal and kinetic involvement from the audience.

Los Angeles Times A
(Charles McNulty) The most exuberant new musical I’ve seen this fall...Teaches the American musical new moves. And I’m not just referring to what happens onstage. Like the current Broadway revival of “Hair,” directed by Diane Paulus and choreographed by the cutting-edge Karole Armitage, “Fela!” doesn’t permit theatergoers to sit by passively...As much a concert and a dance piece as it is a musical, “Fela!” is perhaps best described as a work of total theater. More visually and aurally mesmerizing than dramatically stirring, the work achieves a unique build by focusing on the emotion that galvanized this iconic performer to battle political oppression in his African homeland, no matter the colonial or post-colonial source...Jones’ choreography never lets us lose sight of a fundamental source of our shared humanity, a locus of reliable ecstasy and inevitable suffering: the body.

CurtainUp A-
(Simon Saltzman) It looks sensational...The musical still plays a bit confusingly with time. It remains, however, a testament to the visceral energy of all the performers as they appear to revel in the imaginative Nigerian-based dances created by the Tony award-winning Jones...Although Jones’s gift as a dance modernist is visible, it is his instinctual grasp of Fela’s unique music — a fusion of African rhythms, jazz, and funky harmonies — that makes the dances so exciting. I still find the nightmarish ballet, in which Fela dreams of going to the land of dead spirits to be comforted by his dead mother, a bit too grotesque and pretentious...The earnest passion that drove this show a year ago has been feverishly re-activated.

Theatermania A-
(Dan Balcazo) There's no better dancing on Broadway...The sheer exuberance of the performers makes this bio-musical about Nigerian activist, composer, and performer Fela Anikulapo Kuti an exciting and richly rewarding theatrical experience...The move to Broadway has resulted in a tighter show, with its unwieldy three-hour Off-Broadway running time shortened to a more manageable two and a half hours. However, all the main narrative beats remain intact, and sometimes seem even clearer than before. Portions of Fela's life still come off as overly romanticized (particularly his wedding to multiple women, here played more for comic effect), but overall the character of Fela appears to be more fleshed out. Much of the credit for this should be shared with Ngaujah, whose already energetic and charismatic performance has gotten even better...Marina Draghici's eye-popping African-influenced costumes are as effective as ever, but her still vibrant and colorful scenic design that extends into the house of the theater doesn't work as well with the O'Neill's architecture as it did at 37 Arts. The larger venue has also resulted in a loss of intimacy, and the interactive moments within Fela! now seem forced.

Bergen Record A-
(Robert Feldberg) Infectious...The show's setting is a club in Lagos, Nigeria, and this is the greatest floor show you'll ever see...Even in a show that's a tribute to Fela, Ngaujah, in a rich portrayal, suggests the considerable egotism that was also a part of his personality...While soaring on its musical numbers, the show's chief problem off-Broadway was a rambling book. For Broadway, the story's been trimmed and is more tightly focused, but it remains the lesser part of the evening. It's understandable that much book time is devoted to Fela's politics. That's who he was and what many of his songs, such as the hit "Zombie," were vibrantly about. After a while, though, the generalized condemnations of oppression and exploitation become repetitious. We feel the heat, but there's not much light...All of that, though, is Broadway-musical trimmings. Go to "Fela!" anticipating a super-stimulating, world-class song-and-dance concert, led by a remarkable performer, and you won't be disappointed.

Variety A-
(David Rooney) Breaks bold new ground in musical theater...Rather than a straight-up chronicle of the life of late Nigerian musician-activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the show is about vividly conjuring a specific atmosphere. It provides a full-immersion experiential ride through the artist's heady, hermetic world, from his formation as a musician to his spiritual and political awakening. Crafting a show that's more impressionistic than informational has its limitations as well as rewards. Despite minor tightening since it premiered Off Broadway last fall, "Fela!" remains undershaped; at times, it's repetitive and self-indulgent. It leans more toward celebratory tribute than warts-and-all portrait. However, Fela's egomania and retrograde attitude toward women, which ran contrary to the example of his feminist mother, are by no means glossed over...Such reservations are secondary to the tremendous raw authenticity and electric energy of this dance-heavy bio-musical, and the dangerous sensuality of Sahr Ngaujah (alternating performances with Kevin Mambo), who inhabits the title role with a cool command that never loses intensity...As much as the hit Broadway revival of "Hair," this is a show that defies an audience to remain outside the experience, particularly as the dancers and musicians shimmy and weave through the aisles.

Wall Street Journal A-
(Terry Teachout) The music and dancing are so good that if Fela! had been a half-hour shorter, I wouldn't have been overly troubled by its shapelessness. Alas, it plays for 2½ hours, and by the time the festivities draw to a close, you'll feel as though you'd lingered too long at a Thanksgiving table piled high with goodies. Even so, Fela! is tremendous fun, and anyone with curious ears and an eye for first-class dancing won't want to miss it. Warning: Fela! is loud. Bring earplugs—and use them.

New York Post A-
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) There's enough energy in the first act of "Fela!" to short-circuit Con Ed. It spills over from the stage and into the orchestra seats, boundless and joyous: This is as close as Broadway gets to fully immersive theater...Directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, the biography is at its most thrilling when it blurs the line between life and art, performers and viewers. A pedagogical deconstruction of Afrobeat's musical components turns into a party, and the show is so cocky that it doesn't even save a big audience-participation number for the finale: It comes half an hour in. It's a tough act to keep up, and "Fela!" does struggle after intermission. In the second act, the pretense of being at a concert falls by the wayside, and a dream sequence involving Fela's mother, Funmilayo (Lillias White), drags on forever...For such a boundary-busting project, it's oddly conventional in the way it glosses over the cause of Fela's death (of AIDS) and smoothes out his misogyny -- his embrace of polygamy wasn't nearly as endearing as it's portrayed. But then, the intensely charismatic Ngaujah played the lead when I saw the show. Whipping his band and followers into a frenzy, he's fully aware of his power -- and you finally understand how an entertainer can be a human weapon.

New York Observer A-
(Jesse Oxfeld) Raucously fun...[Jones] creates a dizzying party onstage, giving his performers athletic, frenzied, propulsive and suggestively butt-centric dances...The show’s weakness is its book, by Mr. Jones and Jim Lewis. It’s a straightforward recounting of Fela’s life, integrated around his songs, but it never develops any characters other than Fela himself, not even his apparently sainted mother...It also seems to lack an ending, cutting off the story of Fela’s life for no real reason except that two and a half hours are up...But if the story isn’t entirely satisfying, the evening is. With its ’60s kids singing of revolution, its general Be-In feeling, even its dancers coming down the aisles, Fela! is sort of a funked-up, African Hair. And if it didn’t quite make me want to read up on my Nigerian history—I know, I know, I should—it did make me go home and download a few of Fela’s albums.

New Jersey Newsroom B+
(Michael Sommers) While its unique charms certainly are powerful, one frankly wonders whether this unusual show will catch on with the mainstream public...This tumultuous production staged and choreographed by Jones conjures up a vivid impression of a runaway country and an outlaw musician who tried to make sense of it. The non-traditional nature of this musical's format and score certainly reflects Fela's revolutionary ways. For all of such artful chaos churning onstage, the story is relatively easy to follow thanks to occasionally projected supertitles and a fierce, transfixing performance by Sahr Ngaujah as Fela...Backed by that rowdy band, a 20-member ensemble shakes their rumps and the rafters as they madly perform amid the sweaty atmospherics of Jones' production. Garbed and treated like a goddess, Lillias White provides a mighty voice and an impressive presence as Fela's ill-fated activist mama. The show will prove a stretch for conservative Broadway tastes, but anybody desiring something more adventurous than the same old musical stuff should check out "Fela!"

NY1 B+
(Roma Torre) It remains a unique art piece. Or is it a dance concert, or perhaps story theater set to music? Whatever it is, "Fela!," much like its late namesake and subject, Nigerian performer Fela Kuti, defies definition...Set in The Shrine, Kuti’s famed club, on a summer night in 1978, the action is seemingly spontaneous. The amazing dancers, though clearly disciplined, are rarely synchronized and when Fela’s not performing a number, he talks to the audience in what comes off as stream of consciousness...The magnificent Sahr Ngaujah, who alternates with Kevin Mambo in the lead role, embodies Fela Kuti’s passion as if possessed...Jones works wonders on that stage alongside the musicians of the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, crafting a new dramatic language. Melding music, story and dance, he’s enabled Kuti’s unique artistry to live on. Despite a bigger budget and some reshaping, the show is still too long and challenging for many of those with more traditional tastes. But "Fela!" speaks to Broadway’s next generation, whose embrace of the work gives hope for the theater’s future.

The New Yorker B
(Joan Acocella) There are two great things in it. One is Sahr Ngaujah, the man who, for most of the week, plays Fela. How did the producers find a performer who matched Fela in charm, wit, and insolence?...In some respects, Ngaujah may actually be better than Fela...The second glory of “Fela!” is the dancing, created by Bill T. Jones. It’s hard to make West African dance look bad—this is one of the great dance cultures of the world—but oh, how good Jones and the dancers, more than half of them American-born (the others are African or Caribbean), have made it look...I should add that the costumes, by Marina Draghici, could not be more perfect...Like most Broadway musicals these days, “Fela!” is assaultive. The music is loud; lights are beamed in your eyes. The show’s Fela insists on audience participation, as did the real Fela, in keeping with the African tradition of call-and-response. We were supposed to shout “Yeah! Yeah!” when he told us to...As the show moves along, the dance peters out a bit. After the opening section, the dancers often wear shoes—jazz shoes, with a little heel. This is a terrible idea. You can’t do proper West African dance without the foot’s contact, artistic and symbolic, with the ground...In “Fela!” the obligation to tell another man’s story prevents Jones from putting his own story in our face. I hope this happens to him more often.

Talkin' Broadway B
(Matthew Murray) Off-Broadway, Fela! played like a protest rally that didn’t want to pretend to be a musical; now it plays more like a musical that barely wants to be a protest rally...Take the fierceness out of the man, and there’s not much left except a marathon of a role - Fela is hardly ever offstage - that’s now denied its deepest emotional payoff. Tone down the rabble-rousing specter of his mother and inspiration, Funmilayo, and you have a one-two punch of deflation. That’s also happened, due to some questionable recasting: Talented as she is, Lillias White is too mainstream and predictable a voice to convince as the otherworldly woman behind this world-changing man...The same philosophy has also seeped into the rest of the production, making safe, slick, and smooth what used to be coarser and densely realistic...Marina Draghici’s sexy costumes burst with tribal and reverential color (almost Techni, at some points), but her set feels like a hodgepodge collection of junkyard items designed to both suggest danger and reassure you there’s no chance of harm...You’re more aware than ever that you’re in a theater that’s trying not to look like one...Luckily, there’s no similar problem to be found with the performances, which aside from White are hard-core theatrical fusion.

Village Voice B-
(Michael Feingold) White, woefully underused, gives the show such elegance and star wattage as it has; Ngaujah's authority and nonstop energy supply the motor that keeps it running. Matching him in the energy department when required, the dancers are spectacular in their flamboyant acrobatic feats. And the band, asked to play almost constantly throughout, is sublime. What was wrong with the Off-Broadway edition, however, is still wrong here: For all the fierce enthusiasm that Ngaujah brings to the evening (presumably equaled by Kevin Mambo, who plays the strenuous role at selected performances), the end result still seems scattershot and disconnected, a scrapbook with high points rather than a theatrical event.

Newsday B-
(Linda Winer) I know I should feel hard-wired to enjoy - no, to love - "Fela!"...The show - a multicultural hipster magnet during its celebrated tryout Off-Broadway last year - would seem to push some of my most closely held buttons. The nonlinear form and music are meant to take Broadway into unconventional places. The worldview is humanist, anti-colonial and, despite the setting - 1978 in Lagos, Nigeria - brutally timely. And the ersatz-African dances, which snake down the aisles and up a side runway, are electric. But I am untouched...The songs, with Fela's potent pidgin-poetry in subtitles, are a jubilant, subtle mixture of Afro-Caribbean rhythm, jazz brass, Yoruban chant and R&B. But they were never meant to carry a story on their back, and they do not. Director-choreographer Bill T. Jones, the modern-dance master who won a Tony for his snaky, enchanting movement for "Spring Awakening," creates an ebullient party atmosphere for the mass-market mythmaking of Fela...Sahr Ngaujah has the oversized presence to overcome the more incoherent parts of his story.

On Off Broadway B-
(Matt Windman) It's hard to imagine any place more lively than Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre, where the new musical "Fela!" just opened...Director-choreographer Bill T. Jones has staged seemingly untamed, vibrant choreography that perfectly matches the percussive music. Sahr Ngaujah, who plays Fela along with Kevin Mambo on alternating nights, almost never leaves the stage...But in spite of so much to admire visually, "Fela!" has absolutely no storyline besides some vague biographical details and quickly turns into a repetitive bore. It plays like a one-man show with backup dancers and singers giving off explosive energy. Some more intriguing moments later in the show include a hallucinatory experience with his mother and the graphic details of a 1977 attack on his home. The show's producers took a huge risk bringing a show with a relatively narrow niche appeal to Broadway. But in spite of its overflowing theatricality, "Fela!" falls short of providing a solid night of drama.

The New York Times A+ 14; Time Out NY A 13; TFT A 13; The Daily News A 13; Bloomberg News A 13; NYMag A 13; LAT A 13; CurtainUp A- 12; Theatermania A- 12; Bergen Record A- 12; Variety A- 12; New York Post A- 12; NYO A- 12; New Jersey Newsroom B+ 11; NY1 B+ 11; NYer B 10; Talkin' Broadway B 10; Newsday B- 9; On Off Broadway B- 9; VV B- 9; TOTAL: 232/20=11.6 (A-)

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