I wasn't a fan of the musical Fela when I saw it Off Broadway at the 37 Arts theater complex. Although I found the story captivating, the dance energetic, and the music vibrant, I thought the storytelling was primitive, and the direction loose and unfocused.
But like many recent shows that have made the Off- to On-Broadway transfer (In the Heights, Next to Normal, Spring Awakening, Grey Gardens), Fela has undergone significant revisions, and the Fela that is currently playing at the Eugene O'Neill Theater in New York is a major improvement over its earlier incarnation. If this renovated Fela isn't quite the magnum opus its creators seemed to be striving for, it's unquestionably the most ambitious new musical of the season.
The show tells the story of Nigerian recording artist and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti, as filtered through the sensibilities of director/choreographer Bill T. Jones (Spring Awakening) and his co-librettist Jim Lewis. The show starts by breaking down the history of Fela's music, then relates how he himself became an instrument of rebellion. In protest against the corrupt and oppressive Nigerian regime, Fela declares his compound an independent state, with dramatic and often tragic consequences.
As was the case Off-Broadway, the story of Fela comes mostly in monologue form. Since the dramatic conceit of the show is that Fela is giving his farewell concert performance before leaving his beloved Nigeria, I guess that makes a certain amount of sense. But, hey, how about some scenes in flashback to break things up? Thankfully, Jones and Lewis have done just that by adding a new character, the student Sandra (Saycon Sengbloh), who actually has lines, which brings a bit more dimension to the story. But she's still the only other person who speaks: the mother character, played here by the marvelous but underutilized Lillias White, communicates here only through song, and somewhat obliquely at that.
Because I attended a Saturday afternoon performance of the Broadway Fela, I saw Kevin Mambo as Fela this time, which was a bit disappointing, since one of the things that I genuinely enjoyed about Fela Off Broadway was the dynamic Sahr Ngaujah in the title role. Mambo held his own, to be sure, but I would have much preferred to have seen Nguajah again in the show that may very well make him a star. Ngaujah was mesmerizing in a role in which Mambo is merely competent.Overall, the Broadway version of Fela is a considerably more fluid and balanced than the Off-Broadway production, which bordered on hagiography. The new show reveals more facets of Fela the man, both good and bad, including more direct references to his often questionable treatment of women. The result is more dramatically cohesive and emotionally compelling. The formerly excruciating sequence in which Fela communicates with his mother in the afterlife seems to have been shortened and clarified to the point where it's merely innocuous. And Jones seems to have fine-tuned the staging, forging significant improvements in energy and showmanship. The final tags to both acts are especially stunning.
Even so, Fela remains more an intellectual pleasure than a visceral one, more admirable than enjoyable. It's certainly worth seeing, and, as I said, is likely to be the most adventurous musical to hit Broadway this season. Granted, that's not saying much, considering that the only other new musical so far has been the dynamic but conventional Memphis, and the only new shows that are definite for the coming season are The Addams Family and Million Dollar Quartet.
What about Spider-Man, you ask. Yeah, what *about* Spider-Man?