FELA! – A Magical PerformanceTheater — By Shelaagh Ferrell on January 18, 2012 at 7:38 am
By Shelaagh Ferrell
For those of you who have not yet seen FELA! at the Ahmanson Theater, don’t miss this opportunity to catch the Award-nominated Broadway musical, based on the life and music of the legendary Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
Born 1938, in Nigeria, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, rose to fame in Africa and the diaspora in the 70’s as a musician, composer, performer and political activist. A staunch critic of the corrupt military dictatorships that rule Nigeria and Africa, Fela used his music and lyrics as a weapon to overtly attack the oppressive regime. As a musician, he created the new style “Afrobeat” an electric fusion of Yoruba, Jazz, Highlife and Funk traditions to revolutionize the musical sounds of the day. However, his political voice led him to being a marked man. Arrested over 200 times and brutally beaten on several occasions, Fela remained defiant. He never gave up the fight and went on to produce in excess of 70 albums which became an inspiration to millions.
Presented by Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and Will & Jada Pinkett Smith, this production is nothing short of stunning. Act one opens dynamically with a company rendition of Fela’s “Everything Scatter.” Fela played by actor Sahr Ngaujah, immediately draws you in with his intense physical presence, strong vocals and instrumental wizardry. Sahr gives a powerful performance throughout showing his range and versatility as an actor and musician. He commands the stage with wit and humor, demonstrating his skill on the saxophone and masterfully encouraged the audience to join him in participation.
Act two, the tone of the piece changes to have a more, dark, satirical feel which highlights the impact of Fela’s political activism on himself and love ones. Sahr uses interactive mime effectively to demonstrate brutal aspects of the regime. As the show reaches a climax, Funmilayo, Fela’s mother, played by Melanie Marshall, brought the audience to a stunned silence with her powerful rendition of the song Rain, specially written for the show with music by Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean, and lyrics by Bill T Jones and Jim Lewis. Melanie’s rich classic vocal tone permeating throughout added a unique contrast to the more contemporary sounds of the piece and her enormous range enabled her to ring out beautifully, the high notes of this demanding song. In this performance Fela’s love interest Sandra was played by Oneika Phillips, whose sweet gentle tone gave warmth to the role.
The dominance of the show’s choreography created by the show’s director and choreographer Bill T Jones, adds to the shows overall vibrancy. In general, Jones uses a contemporized mix of African styles as the basis for his choreographic creations. This is often fused with jazz and jive dance styles to compliment the pulsating rhythms of the “Afrobeat,” played by the energetic on stage band. The inclusion of specialist tap dancer Gelan Lambert also adds a little treat. In Act two, Jones compliments the drama by including a more poignant, exaggerated choreographic style noted in particularly during the song Zombie. Credit must be given to the ensemble cast, which does justice to the crisp choreography with slickness and vigor, dancing relentlessly throughout the evening, showing no signs of tiring at all.
The cast, in their beautifully colorful ethnic costumes designed by Marina Draghici and elaborate hairdos designed by Cookie Jordan made the show visually electric. The combination of a simple set, backdrop media projections and filmed footages on strategically positions screens, worked well.
Bill T Jones, as Director/Choreographer displayed his combined skill in bringing about this musical masterpiece. He eloquently manages to take the audience on an educational and emotional journey of Fela’s life through, laughter, joy, shock and horror using an exciting palette of theatrical devices. But it is the overall energy of the show that is so magical. It is truly refreshing to see the return of the Director/Choreographer taking the reigns again in contemporary musical theater. Fela! is a must see for all.
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