Billy Elliot seemed slightly less terrible on Broadway than in London. My overall opinion of Next to Normal improved considerably between its Off-Broadway and Broadway productions, although I still find its implicit message suspect.
Then, London's National Theater announced that it would broadcast internationally a "live" (in reality, delayed, because of time differences) performance of the musical Fela as part of its popular NT Live series. Fela recently closed on Broadway after 463 performances, which is pretty good considering many thought (myself included) that it wouldn't last 3 months, let alone a little over a year.
In my review of the Off-Broadway review production of Fela, I was less than impressed. In fact, I was downright annoyed, mostly at the lazy storytelling (the show is essentially one long narration) and cheap theatrical devices (the show relies overly on projections and supertitles to set the scene and tell the story). When I saw the show on Broadway, I was slightly more captivated by the story and message, and by the sheer exuberance of the music, and of Bill T. Jones's electrifying choreography. After viewing the show a third time last night via satellite, I remain a reluctant admirer of the show's intent, but nonetheless a detractor of its storytelling techniques.
Fela tells the story of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, a Nigerian musician and activist active during the 1970s and '80s. It's certainly a story worth telling, and retelling: the aftereffects of British imperialism, the local ramifications of corporate greed, and the ongoing tragedy of African governmental corruption. The show's conceit is that we are attending Fela's last concert at his beloved venue, The Shrine, as Fela has decided to leave Nigeria, having grown unwilling to withstand the pressure and persecution of the Nigerian government.
Last night's broadcast began with a half-hour pre-show, with cast members wandering through the on-screen set, and musicians playing warm-up music, welcoming us into Fela's world. Perhaps predictably, the broadcast atmosphere didn't even come close to the feeling of celebration and community that enveloped audiences during the Broadway show's run. Also, the broadcast director didn't focus the cameras on the supertitles, which appeared during the first number to help acclimate intrepid theatergoers to the Nigerian accents. Perhaps predictably, the uptight Boston audience members declined to stand during the show's "clock" audience-participation section.
At first, I found myself disengaged and unaffected by the broadcast, but around the middle of the first act, I started to get caught up in the proceedings, partly due to an African American woman behind me who regularly vocalized her opinions and approval. Normally that sort of thing would irk me to no end, but somehow the jubilant nature of her participation became infectious.
During the interval (Ahem, that's British for "intermission," don'tcha know), there was an interview with director/choreographer Bill T. Jones, who made some really compelling points about the show and its eponymous "hero." The theme of the show, he said, was that we can have "as much freedom as we are willing to pay for," referring of course to Fela's continual struggle against the Nigerian government, but also wonderfully resonant with our own life and times here in America. Jones acceded that Fela was indeed a flawed character, which the show addresses, but Jones feels that's "part of his poetry."
I found Act 2 of Fela to be considerably more dramatically cohesive and emotionally compelling this time around. Somehow the narrative was making more visceral sense, and I found myself less hide-bound by my own notions of theatrical convention and getting caught up in the story and its message. But I still find the show, overall, to be more admirable than transcendent. When shows aim higher, and feature more noble subject matter, that doesn't mean they get a pass in terms of dramatic integrity and the quality of the presentation. But I will say that three viewings of Fela have taught me that, as a critic and teacher of musical theater, I should try to be more open to alternate forms of storytelling.
It's interesting that we're starting to see more show producers who are allowing these sorts of broadcasts. Just yesterday, it was announced that Memphis would soon be filmed for theatrical release later in the spring. I must say, I find that announcement puzzling. I mean, broadcasting Fela makes sense: one of the keys to the show's effectiveness is its central performance by Sahr Ngaujah. On Broadway, I saw Fela alternate Kevin Mambo, who was fine, but didn't have anywhere near the dynamic and emotional range of Ngaujah. Plus, I have a hard time imagining audiences with Broadway Across America getting excited about Fela as part of their subscription packages. But surely Memphis will be able to drag its mediocre butt across America. Isn't that why the Tony voters gave it Best Musical, despite the fact that Fela is a significantly better show?
A final note of thanks to the folks at Boston's local jewel, The Coolidge Corner Theater, one of a handful of local Boston venues for the Fela broadcast. I foolishly left the task of acquiring my ticket for the last minute, only to find that the showing had sold out. I contacted the good folks at the Coolidge, explained my situation, and after copious abject begging, they scrounged up a ticket for me. Major props to the Coolidge, yo.