One of the things we learned from the recently closed but admirable Passing Strange is that sometimes, when neophytes make forays into musical theater, they can bring fresh insights and innovations to the form.
Other times, we get Fela, a well meaning but tragically flawed new musical that opens September 4th at the 37 Arts theater complex in New York, and plays through September 21st. Fela proposes to tell the story of Nigerian recording artist and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Fela's life and his music reveled in both the celebratory and the revolutionary. Would that the show that director/choreographer/conceiver/librettist Bill T. Jones (Spring Awakening) and co-librettist Jim Lewis have put together were worthy of Fela's passionate life and exuberant music.
Chief among the show's failings is primitive storytelling. The Fela character, played here by the formidable Sahr Ngaujah, relates the plot entirely through narration. Despite a talented cast of 18, no one else speaks a single word, that I can recall, at least not as part of the script. Jones and Lewis fill in plot holes with projected supertitles, another atavistic technique, useful for illuminating song lyrics, but rather inert when it comes to relating key plot points. The staff also print a Fela glossary in the program, always a sign of indolent storytelling, reminiscent of the plot synopsis in the Playbill of Les Misérables.
Bill T. Jones's choreography is by turns joyous and angry, replete with signature Jones touches as well as idiomatic African movement. He really knows how to dress a stage and explore the limits of the human body. What he doesn't seem to know how to do is tell a coherent story, at least as evidenced here in Fela. Perhaps Jones is too firmly rooted in the often fragmented, non-linear storytelling of modern dance. It's also telling that book writer Lewis's only two Broadway productions thus far (Dangerous Games, Chronicle of a Death Foretold) were short-lived dance pieces, both crafted with director/choreographer Graciela Daniele.
The first act of Fela, while unfocused, has a certain ebullient charm, but the second half grows repetitive and tedious. It also features one of the least entertaining, and most irritating, musical sequences I've ever endured in the theater. Fela attempts to communicate with his deceased mother, and the vexing result is a melange of abstruse stage business and blisteringly loud music. It was the worst thing I've seen onstage since the voodoo exorcism in Roza (after which I wanted to hunt down director Hal Prince, who was undoubtedly in the preview audience at what was then the Royale Theater, and do him physical harm). Any residual sympathy I might have had for Fela (the production, not the man) drained away during that unbearable sequence.
Whatever brilliance Fela might contain lies in Jones's fervid choreography, Fela's fiery music, and the show's cast of vibrant performers. What it lacks is coherent storytelling and sharp direction. The life of Fela Anikulapo Kuti was full of dramatic incident, modern resonance, and historical importance. It's unfortunate that Jones and Lewis weren't able to successfully render those elements onstage.
[UPDATE: According to Michael Riedel of the New York Post, Fela has a capitalization of about $1 million, which it hasn't a chance of recouping at the 37 Arts, but producer Stephen Handel is hoping for a significant afterlife for the show. There has been talk of moving Fela to a Broadway house, possibly Studio 54 under the auspices of the Roundabout Theater, or the Circle in the Square. If the show moves, I'll probably see it again, just to see what changes they've made. But I don't have very high hopes. Then again, I didn't much like In the Heights when I saw it at the 37 Arts, only to be pleasantly surprised at the show's progress upon moving to Broadway. So anything's possible.]