Review Round-up: Fela! Gets Critics DancingDate: 17 November 2010
The London transfer of the Tony Award-winning musical Fela! opened to critics at the NT Olivier last night (16 November 2010, previews from 6 November), marking the first time that the National has run a show simultaneously with a Broadway production.Fela! celebrates Nigerian afrobeat musician and political activist Fela Kuti. It began life with a one month off-Broadway run in 2008 before opening at Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre in October 2009, where it continues an open-ended run.
Fronted by Obie Award-winner Sahr Ngaujah in the title role (alternating with Rolan Bell), it features a book by Jim Lewis and additional music by Aaron Johnson and Jordan Mclean, with direction and choreography by Spring Awakening’s Bill T Jones. Alongside Ngaujah, the principal cast features Paulette Ivory and Melanie Marshall.
"This intermittently startling, vigorously compiled but musically monotonous American import of an Afrobeat concert … comes complete with its original star, the eager but uncharismatic Sahr Ngaujah, a saxophone-dominated onstage blaring band of 12, and co-producing credits for Jay-Z and Will Smith. So, what’s it doing at the National, exactly, apart from drawing a new audience, hopefully, for a couple of months? … Fela relates his politicisation in America by his Black Power girlfriend Sandra (an outstanding Paulette Ivory) and soft-pedals his own horrendous super ego (the show would have been infinitely better if he hadn’t) by puffing sweetly on a big spliff ... The chronology is twisted so that Fela can become stronger after the assault on his compound and enter the spiritual world in search of his mother’s blessing, which is blisteringly delivered as a call to arms by Melanie Marshall from beyond the grave. The show plays its strongest suit in an endless (naturally) parade of coffins … a woolly but also deeply moving finale."
"'Who here has ever been to jail?' asks the eponymous hero of this frenetic musical. It is not a question often asked of National Theatre audiences, but it is indicative of a show that, whatever its flaws, joyfully breaks down conventional barriers between stage and auditorium, and joins passion and politics to the pounding music of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti … But there is much more than headlong celebration … It's a great story, and one told with enormous verve in Bill T Jones' kaleidoscopic production. The dancing is ecstatic, the music lifts the spirits, and the stage is alive with movement … The show boasts an extraordinary performance by Sahr Ngaujah, from the original Broadway cast, as Fela. He sings, dances, plays sax and trumpet, chats easily to the audience and exudes a natural charisma. It is a tour de force. He receives strong support from Melanie Marshall as his mother, Paulette Ivory as the American who turns him on politically and sexually, and from the whole dynamic ensemble. I've never seen a show quite like it at the National.”
“The Olivier is impersonating a nightclub in downtown Lagos in 1969: sleazy lighting, projections of political posters and headlines about ‘Political rascality’ … as portrayed by Sahr Ngaujah in this raucous musical, Kuti is a swaggering dandy alpha-male, as fond of marijuana and ‘pussy’ as of rebellion … The show, with a UK cast led by its original Broadway star, comes garlanded with Tony awards and plaudits for its director-choreographer Bill T Jones. It makes Hair look like a Brownies’ Nativity play … But it is more gig than theatre, and a bit frustrating and simplistic. We get no perspective on this hedonist hero: no martyr, he died of Aids in middle age after calling condoms ‘un- African’ … There are high moments: witty choreography of the zombie song mocking politicians, which caught on so much that market-women taunted soldiers with it. There are two utterly beautiful anthems sung by Melanie Marshall as his mother, Funmilayo … The problem dramatically is that Fela alone tells his story, so no perspective is possible … So: bootys well-shaken, critic not quite stirred. But quite a party.”
"Energetic, vivid, assertive, proudly African: the Royal National's big autumn show, Fela!, is all of these ... To be horribly blunt the production is also over-long, hard to follow in places, and more of a concert than a play. Some of the lyrics are clever but the spoken lines are of minimal interest ... The title character is played with handsome charm by Sahr Ngaujah ... Fela was political, though we are never really given much explanation of his ideas ... We are simply left to gather that he agitated bravely against some of the numerous dictators who ran Nigeria ... That final scene has a procession of small coffins which are brought on to the stage, each box bearing a different name or word: the likes of Victoria Climbie, Stephen Lawrence, Ken Saro Wiwa, Zimbabwe, water, intolerance. A broad argument about worldwide black kinship is mixed up with abstract ideas which have barely been scratched at. Again, maybe the music excuses it ... We will end with that audience participation. Ugh. Is there an honest Englishman who enjoys it? I have never felt anything less than a shrivelling chipolata than when forced to stand in a theatre and 'leave my shy outside!' Must one? Really?"
"The Olivier auditorium has been transformed into a Seventies nightclub... It's the setting for what is essentially a work of hagiography... it focuses fresh attention on the legacy of Fela's political activism, as well as on the sheer excitement of his music ... After not much more than half an hour, we are cajoled into some lissome moves of our own. This isn't a show for anyone squeamish about audience participation ... Fela! is true to the spirit of a man whose life and art were short on compromise ... Sahr Ngaujah, the one performer kept from Broadway, brings a wired intensity. He's abrasively charismatic, yet at times seductive and soulful. He is well supported by Paulette Ivory and Melanie Marshall. But it's the ensemble that lives in the memory, thanks to Jones's astonishingly tight choreography ... Some of (Fela's) statements were un-palatable. For instance, he condemned the use of condoms as un-African ... While musically impressive, the production could do with a stronger book. The story is flimsy and confused, and there's a lack of narrative drive. With proceedings dominated by one character, we get little perspective on his real qualities and deficiencies. Weaknesses notwithstanding, it feels like a bold new direction for musical theatre."
"For much of its length I just sat there like Eeyore, despondently thinking it wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. Kuti’s Afrobeat music... is undoubtedly uplifting and hypnotic, even if many of the songs sound remarkably similar and tend to outstay their welcome. And Kuti’s life story is fascinating ... Sahr Ngaujah... exudes slinky-hipped charisma, fierce political anger and sharp wit while displaying his impressive bare-chested physique ... He goads and teases the spectators with panache, storms off the stage when he doesn’t think we are responding enthusiastically enough, and has everyone up on their feet and dancing within the first half-hour ... Great moments are followed by long passages when nothing much seems to be happening ... Though in many ways the show is impeccably politically correct, Kuti’s cavalier attitude to women and refusal to use condoms (he eventually died of Aids) is completely ducked. There is however no doubt that the show offers a dazzling eyeful, with spectacular designs by Marina Draghici. The music, superbly played by an onstage band, is often thrilling ... Yet none of this quite persuaded me that the show was much more than a bog-standard jukebox musical, albeit one performed with exceptional panache."