By Michael H. Margolin
When was the last time you saw a Broadway hit in Detroit with the original lead? Maybe Carol Channing in “Hello Dolly?” This time around, The Music Hall has scored a coup: not only the marvelous Broadway/London show, but the star of those productions, Sahr Ngaujah.
“Fela!” celebrates the life of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, a Nigerian activist and musical innovator. In the performance of the gifted Ngaujah, he is immortalized for those of us who are, now, aware of AfroBeat, which he popularized, some might say, memorialized, in the 1970s.
The show takes place in Fela’s night club in Lagos, Nigeria, the Africa Shrine Nightclub, where Ngaujah takes center stage for most of the two hour running time. He sings, dances, plays trumpet and saxophone and, in the second act, shirtless, shows the impeccable pecs and upper arms of a modern day Greek god.
He is, unto himself, a legend, and if Fela was half as dynamic, he is well represented. (Fela last played Detroit in 1991; he died in 1997.)
Set in 1970, the show, co-written with panache by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, moves into the past to show some of the experiences that affected Fela: He was an activist, writing songs that skewered corrupt generals and their governments, that held the colonialists and neo-colonialists’ feet to the lyrical fire, setting aflame radicalism in its listeners.
This show, then, is a celebration, not only of one man’s starry life, but of his courage in facing oppression in his country and dragging AfroBeat music to the world and into world music. His mother’s death was the result of his outspoken songs, and at the end of Act II, a brilliant scene distills the events of the raid on his enclave by goons in Army uniform and the graphic deaths of some of his followers – at times drawing gasps from the audience.
This was the event, some four years before the time of the show’s setting, when Funmilayo, Fela’s mother, was thrown from a second floor window to her death.
One of the small miracles of Bill T. Jone’s direction is how he keeps the show on an entertainment track, not letting it get preachy, but still making the point about heroes of the black movement, in Africa and here, in our country. Jones, himself an innovative choreographer with a social viewpoint, made a wise decision in choreographing (with associate, Maija Garcia.)
This show could exist as a dance work, with the sensational torque of hip and torso and the intricate footwork in opposition to swaying bodies. AfroBeat inspires dance, as it is a blend of African music, elements of jazz and funk, and features chants, call-and-response and complex rhythms.
But, wait, there is more.
The set is wondrous, the lighting outranks any rainbow you will see, and the generous use of projections on scrims outside of the proscenium and along the upper half of the rear wall carry the audience into the presentation (as do the spotlights sometimes shining into the crowd.) The magicians who accomplished this are Marina Draghici, Robert Wierzel and Peter Nigrini, with a fine sound design by Robert Kaplowitz. (In 2010, the show took three Tonys for choreography, costume and sound, and was nominated for a total of 11.)
In the supporting cast, the wondrous Melanie Marshall – also from the original cast – sings Funmilayo. Marshall’s voice is heavenly, reaching up and up in her second act song set on the stairway to heaven.
Other performers of note are Paulette Ivory (a sensuous Sandra), the outstanding Ismael Kouyate as the character of the same name, Gelan Lambert as the Tap Dancer and Egungun, and Rasaan-Elijah “Talu” Green as Iljembe-‘Mustafa.’ The ensemble is sensational, and the 10-piece band that plays upstage produces some extraordinary music.
The songs are forceful, direct, rhythmic, mostly by Fela himself. My one reservation is that only some of the song lyrics are projected onto the rear scrim, and with their polyglot lyrics are hard to understand.
One thing that is not hard to understand: why we should honor this man and thank conceivers Bill T. Jones, Jim Lewis and Stephen Hendel as the driving forces that brought this show and the history of AfroBeat to the stage with the help of Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and Ruth and Stephen Hendel who produced.
SHOW DETAILS: “Fela!” continues at Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, 350 Madison St., Detroit, Tuesday-Friday through March 4. Tickets: $30-100. For information: 313-887-8501 or www.musichall.org.
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