Fela! at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on Broadway.
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****
I was supposed to see Fela! in December as the final show in my New York City trip. When the performance was canceled due to injuries about 10 minutes after curtain time, I was extremely disappointed.
By the time I returned to Broadway, last weekend, new musicals had opened and I'd lost interest. I was going to skip Fela! altogether.
But my friend Steve on Broadway encouraged me to give it another chance, telling me it was incredible and reminding me that I'd get to see Saycon Sengbloh in a featured role. Fortunately, I listened to him.
Fela! tells the story of the late Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and takes place in 1978 in his nightclub, the Shrine. It's an original musical that meshes politics, history and a personal narrative with the pulsating sound of Afrobeat. I was enthralled from beginning to end.
Two actors share the title role - Sahr Ngaujah and Kevin Mambo. I saw Mambo and he was mesmerizing - a charismatic showman who at one point gets the audience up and swiveling our collective hips. You can understand why a million people crowded the streets of Lagos at Fela's funeral.
Mambo is onstage almost the entire 2 1/2 hours and has practically the only speaking role. The music - from the Afrobeat band Antibalas - and dance, choreographed by Tony winner Bill T. Jones, are almost nonstop. Robert Kaplowitz's Tony-winning sound design was crisp and clear without hurting my ears.
Aided by Peter Nigrini's projection design, Fela tells of his childhood in a politically active family, chafing under British Colonial rule, eye-opening travels to England the United States, becoming a musician and opposing the corruption that took hold in Nigeria after independence.
And Mambo is a terrific storyteller. He's funny as Fela describes his influences - Frank Sinatra and James Brown among them; poignantly ambivalent referring to his grandfather - the first African to record music in Europe; reverential about his mother, Funmilayo, a courageous, pioneering feminist; defiant toward the authorities who constantly harass and arrest him.
Only two other performers have speaking roles. Sengbloh is captivating as Sandra Isadore, an American who sparks his interest in politics and black power. Abena Koomson (understudy for Lillias White) is stirring as Funmilayo. I just wish we'd seen more of them, and others who influenced Fela's life.
Fela! doesn't present its subject as a saint - there's a hilarious scene involving marijuana and he married 27 women, some of whom are onstage dancing with him. And it doesn't stint in describing the violence directed against Fela and his followers by Nigeria's military dictatorship.
So I was disappointed that while the show mentions Fela's death, it's silent about the cause - complications from AIDS. The omission leaves the audience wondering and it made me a bit sad that in one respect, this bold musical held back.
Nonetheless, I left the theatre exhilarated and with two thoughts: that Kevin Mambo should have received a Tony nomination along with Sahr Ngaujah and that Fela! was the best new musical I saw on Broadway this season.